Robert Abela and Chris Fearne would have probably had second thoughts about running to become prime minister this time last year had they known a pandemic was waiting in the wings.
The race was sparked by Joseph Muscat’s resignation amid one of the most politically turbulent periods in Malta’s history. Muscat remained hugely popular and it therefore was no surprise that Abela trumpeted the motto of ‘continuity’ to secure the contest.
But barely had the 43-year-old lawyer set up office at Castille that he was thrown into emergency mode, forced to deal with a pandemic which devastated the economy and changed the way we live.
This is why, one year on since being sworn in as prime minister, Abela should be mainly be judged within the context of COVID-19. Abela has been walking a very delicate tightrope, to ensure the virus does not spiral out of control while keeping the economy out of intensive care.
The prime minister must be credited with taking generous measures which helped keep the economy afloat while keeping unemployment in check.
But as the pandemic continues wreaking havoc, he persists in setting unrealistic targets of going back to “business as usual”, even if the optimistic tone is understandable for a leader trying to imbue the country with confidence.
The verdict is not yet out since we are in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, a wave Abela had arrogantly dismissed as we were barely out of the first one.
This propensity to lean on misjudged rhetoric to numb public concerns and a reluctance to acknowledge mistakes, coupled with an air of arrogance, has arguably been Abela’s Achilles Heel. This is probably down to his lack of experience in public office as well as being remarkably thin-skinned for a politician.
Away from the pandemic, Abela needs to continue with the spring clean, which he began on the right foot by getting rid of notorious characters like Chris Cardona and Konrad Mizzi in cabinet and replacing a police chief whose wilful inaction brought shame to Malta.
He has forced through a raft of rule of law reforms which have improved Malta’s governance structures, though the sense remains that the changes only happened because Abela had international observers breathing down his neck.
The success of Abela’s apparent clean slate will only be sealed and delivered once we see politically-exposed persons made accountable and face justice.
Abela’s approach when it comes to migration is callous, with an ill-thought and costly strategy to keep hundreds of asylum seekers stranded out at sea on board tourist vessels.
Abela’s two cabinet reshuffles suggest the prime minister is still trying to find his feet
He continues resorting to superficial analogy that Malta is “full up” when it was his government that leaned on imported cheap labour to fuel the economy.
Like his predecessor, Abela persists in appeasing special interest groups to the detriment of protecting Malta’s natural environment.
After Miriam Pace was killed inside her home by construction works next door, Abela failed to carry out the radical changes he promised and the sector continues operating with impunity.
Hunters, meanwhile, have had a red-letter year: Abela began by appointing one of their own to oversee them, allowed them a hunting season while the country was in effective lockdown and then handed them the keys to woodlands.
Abela’s two cabinet reshuffles suggest the prime minister is still trying to find his feet and surround himself by his own team of loyalists who can deliver his vision and a probable electoral victory.
All told, it is still too early to judge a prime minister who appears to be saddled by his predecessor’s failures and bolstered by his predecessor’s successes. For while Abela still has a way to go to undo the damage left by Muscat’s administration, he has had the luxury of tapping into a surplus budget he inherited to keep the country going through a pandemic. And that has been his saving grace.
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