A Malta in political crisis stands on the precipice of a new decade. Christopher Scicluna looks back at an age largely defined by the choices of one man.
How will politics in the 2010s be remembered? It was a turbulent decade, dominated by the rise and fall of Labour’s Joseph Muscat, and the fall and fall of the Nationalist Party. It ends with an uncertain future for both of Malta’s biggest parties, and a surging civil society network demanding greater accountability from politicians.
Here is a look at the main events that left a lasting impact on the political landscape of the past 10 years:
July 2010 – Surprise motion for divorce
The 2008 Nationalist government is elected on the strength of a relative majority and an unstable one-seat parliamentary majority. In July 2010 Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando shocks the PN and surprises the nation by presenting a motion in parliament for the introduction of divorce. It is a personal initiative that was not discussed within the PN parliamentary group.
Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat, elected to the helm of the Labour Party two years before, seizes the opportunity as a means to embarrass the government while promoting his liberal civil rights agenda. The government has no option but to go ahead with holding a referendum and after a ‘yes’ vote in 2011, introduce divorce legislation much to the chagrin of the leader of Lawrence Gonzi, then Nationalist leader, who votes against.
Pullicino Orlando later votes with the Opposition on a motion demanding the removal of Richard Cachia Caruana as Malta’s envoy to the EU. He then leaves the parliamentary group and becomes an independent MP.
December 2011 - Gonzi's government teeters
Nationalist MP Franco Debono insists that the government should bring in institutional and constitutional reform. Matters worsen over the following months as Dr Debono threatens to vote against the government in the House. The legislative programme almost grinds to a halt as the government seeks to avoid any voting in the House. Yet Dr Gonzi manages to hold on almost until the end of his term. He is brought down a few months before the election is due when Dr Debono votes against the 2013 Budget.
March 2013 - Muscat sweeps to power
The Labour Party wins the general election, sweeping to power with a majority of 55 per cent or some 30,000 votes. Joseph Muscat becomes prime minister at 39 and says he is 'humbled' by the result and promises to work with the Opposition and give the people ‘Malta for all the Maltese’.
“Among the reasons for this massive victory was the infighting in the Nationalist Party, a badly-timed and underhanded addition of MPs’ honoraria to government ministers’ salary (later withdrawn), the oil procurement scandal (though no government member was involved), and the fact that the Nationalists had been in power for 24 of the previous 26 years – a factor which perhaps weighed most of all on voters’ minds,” Laurence Grech, former editor of The Sunday Times of Malta says.
“Obviously, the rejuvenated Labour Party, which now styled itself a “movement”, and its promise of good governance, transparency and meritocracy, struck a chord with the electorate, persuading many traditionally Nationalist voters to switch to Labour. Also figuring prominently in the Labour Party’s programme was a promise to reduce electricity tariffs by a quarter within two years.”
Muscat’s efforts to move his party closer to the centre and make it more business-friendly pay off as the economy starts rapid growth, even providing jobs to thousands of foreigners.
“We are witnessing a country where people from different cultures live side by side and where there is an uninhibited flow of different ideas and approaches to life. This has also sometimes created new problems such as a strain on the country’s infrastructure, sporadic episodes of racism, and abuse of the social media,” says political observer Desmond Zammit Marmarà.
Muscat also launches a programme of new civil rights including same sex marriage.
“Perhaps, the most important change in the past 10 years has been the rapid and vast secularisation of the country, especially after the Labour Party was elected in 2013. Who would have imagined some years ago that today there would be a debate in Malta about the introduction of abortion, a topic which was absolutely taboo in years gone by?” Marmarà adds.
March 2013 - Lawrence Gonzi resigns
Dr Gonzi resigns as PN leader after the general election. "Stay positive, continue believing in the country which can overcome the rough weather which engulfed other countries," he says at a press conference. The PN, he adds, will need to re-examine itself, re-establish its roots and renew itself.
Corruption and the Panama Papers
The Muscat government quickly becomes embroiled in a series of corruption scandals and doubtful contracts, giving Busuttil the sharpest arrow in the opposition’s armoury.
In February 2016 Daphne Caruana Galizia reveals how Muscat’s then chief of staff Keith Schembri and then energy minister Konrad Mizzi set up secret companies in Panama soon after taking office. Muscat sows the seeds of his own downfall by standing by them.
“That Joseph Muscat did not sack Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi after it was revealed that they had opened secret companies in Panama was a gross error of judgment,” Desmond Zammit Marmarà says.
A year later, Caruana Galizia reveals how another secret company, 17 Black, is to be used as a vehicle to transfer funds to those two companies.
A Times of Malta/Reuters investigation in November 2018 reveals that 17 Black is owned by Yorgen Fenech, one of whose companies is a major shareholder in the consortium that was granted a government contract to build and operate a power station. Muscat still stands by Schembri and Mizzi.
April 2016 - The Egrant affair
Daphne Caruana Galizia claims that the prime minister’s wife is the beneficiary of funds from yet another secret Panama company, Egrant. Muscat strongly denies the claims and appoints a magisterial inquiry.
Within days Muscat calls a snap election for June 3, a year before the end of his first term. He wins by another landslide.
September 17, 2017 – Delia elected PN leader
Simon Busuttil resigns, and in a first for Malta, the PN invites all of its members to vote for its new leader. Outsider Adrian Delia is elected leader with a majority of 53 per cent after a runoff against former minister Chris Said. Delia had himself been the target of claims of financial wrongdoing by Caruana Galizia and a rift opens within the PN with a section of the party viewing Delia as lacking the credibility to carry forward the good governance campaign.
October 16, 2017 – Daphne Caruana Galizia is assassinated
The nation is shocked as journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is killed by a powerful car bomb as she drives out of her house in Bidnija. The news reverberates across the world. The government calls in the FBI and Europol to help investigators. Three men are arrested and charged with the murder in December 2017 but the hunt for the masterminds continues.
“The assassination of Malta’s top investigative journalist was undoubtedly the event that stands out in the past decade,” says Laurence Grech.
November/December 2019 – Suspected mastermind arraigned, Muscat announces resignation
Rapid developments in the Daphne Caruana Galizia investigation, as taxi driver Melvin Theuma is arrested in a money laundering operation. He admits to police to having been the murder plot middleman and is granted a pardon in return for information. Within days, suspected mastermind Yorgen Fenech is arrested on his yacht while leaving Malta.
On November 26, Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi resign after huge public pressure because of their alleged financial links to Fenech, although they deny wrongdoing. Fenech is arraigned on November 30 and pleads not guilty to complicity in the Caruana Galizia murder. He is refused a pardon but implicates Schembri and other officials of the Office of the Prime Minister. They again deny wrongdoing.
But Muscat is dragged down and announces on December 1 that he will resign when a new Labour leader is elected in mid-January 2020. He resists calls to go immediately and is shunned by the socialists in the European Parliament – where he started his political career in 2004 – when they join an overwhelming vote calling on him to step down.
Huge challenges ahead, for both parties
2019 ends with the PN not having won a majority in any local or general election since way back in 2003, while Labour prepares to find out whether it can maintain its run of success without Joseph Muscat.
“The new Labour leader faces the challenge of cleaning up the Labour Party from all those tainted with corruption or bad governance,” says Zammit Marmarà. “He also needs to steer the PL clear from its too-close links with several prominent businessmen.
“Under Dr Joseph Muscat’s watch, Malta saw big business being given priority over ordinary people. The 1996 PL battle cry of “Iċ-Ċittadin L-Ewwel” (“The citizen first”) was completely put aside. The vast majority of Maltese citizens were infuriated at seeing several developers destroying the natural environment and showing no respect towards Malta’s cultural and historical patrimony. People were angered at seeing prominent businessmen operating illegally and defying enforcement notices, even for extended periods of time. There was also the perception that the law was interpreted differently by the State, depending on whether you were a powerful businessman or a weak ordinary citizen.
“The new Labour leader has to extricate the PL from its ‘big business’ stranglehold, otherwise the party will be remembered as the one which permitted the destruction of the environment when in power and the one which put the interests of big business before those of the ordinary citizen.”
According to Laurence Grech, “the stream of revelations resulting from evidence in court regarding the plot to assassinate Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the sordid corruption deals involving members of the government right up to the prime minister’s office, have galvanised civil society to an extent not seen since the troubled Eighties.
“Young people who until recently were totally apathetic to politics are among the most vociferous demonstrators in the string of protests organised in the past few weeks by Repubblika, Occupy Justice and manuedelia.com, which have attracted huge crowds venting their anger at the rottenness permeating the corridors of power.
“The obstinate refusal of Joseph Muscat to resign straightaway, despite calls from all quarters, including from prominent Labourites and now, the European Parliament, to do so, continues to cast a shadow on Malta’s credentials as a democracy and its rule of law.
“Whoever succeeds Muscat has a Herculean task in trying to repair the almost irreparable.”