Elections are corners on the paths walked by the political system. Hidden behind them is an uncertain future and turning them is full of fear and hope. The road around the bend might prove smoother and easier. But who knows what might be lurking?
Joseph Muscat looks for absolution from elections. He hopes the experience would compare to walking under waterfalls that could cleanse him of the grime of the trenches without, he would pray, breaking his neck with the pressure.
Adrian Delia looks to survive. He is far lower in the hierarchy of needs than Muscat’s lofty ambitions. Not being altogether overrun and dumped in an obscure footnote of history is all the PN leader dares hope for.
They both might get what they wish for.
Muscat had high hopes for the 2017 elections. His edifice of cronyism, nepotism, clientelism, corrupt practices, vote buying, public sector job retailing, planning permit auctioning incumbency paid off handsomely. Electorally, victory was resounding.
But he hoped for much more from those elections. He didn’t merely wish to vanquish his foes. He wanted to bury them. And some persist at gnawing at his feet. He knows that even his most sycophantic fans accept that his administration is blasted by corruption. They applaud the indictment of the likes of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ana Gomes, David Casa and now Pieter Omtzigt, accused of seeking to “harm Malta” out of witchcraft, treason, envy or madness.
But even Labour fans understand that’s just ammo. No one thinks Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri are victims of an endless lie. They know they set up the Panama companies. They know they contracted with Electrogas. They know their Panama companies hooked up with 17 Black which promised to pay them thousands every day. They know 17 Black is owned by Yorgen Fenech. They know Fenech part-owns Electrogas.
They also know Muscat has not fired them.
They might applaud Muscat because they admire his brass neck: his ability to get away with it every time. Or they might disapprove in principle of corruption but would rather a corrupt Labour government over a Nationalist government any day because it is their own and “my family always, right or wrong”. Or they might argue they would always rather someone corrupt but competent than someone who may or may not be corrupt given the chance, but having been given the chance they have proven incompetent.
Muscat understands this. The crowd is fickle. His mirror, mirror on the wall will continue to tell him he is the greatest of them all until someone younger, keener and cleaner comes up. Muscat wants his exit before that happens and a clean exit requires absolution.
Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, they despise each other and yet one can’t be who they are without the other
He wants out of the corruption allegations so that he can stay on, powerful in a different form, glorious in his transfiguration from prime minister to immortal demigod whose victories justify his destiny no matter how foul he played for it.
The darker the sins, the heavier the pressure of the water needed to wash them away. Right now he is like the gambler hiding his sweat buds from himself, rolling the dice in the hope of the one great victory that could pay for all the accumulated gambling debts.
He sees an EU post as a new beginning, a pedestal that will raise him above the reach of the gnawing detractors, a fresh start.
It is a false hope. John Dalli got away with anything and everything practically all his life. In Europe however his dodgy standards, his moral compromises, his greed brought him to disgrace. It brought the country to shame as well but that was hardly ever on his mind.
Muscat is not thinking about that right now. He is thinking about how tonight’s results could give him a way out, a ticket to freedom, what he would hope is a metaphorical get-out-of-jail-free card. He is not thinking of the cost of rolling those dice. Merely of the winnings when they turn out, inevitably, the right way up.
He is not thinking that right now but the higher one climbs, the more irredeemably devastating is the fall.
Delia is not looking to climb. His precarious toehold on office is too shaky to think of future victories. He will be thankful not to be pushed out of Gallipoli. His calculus is not about the rate at which he is turning the tide and challenging for the attention of that mirror, mirror on the wall. His calculus is about working the numbers that let him stay exactly where he is.
But Delia understands there is no weight of heavy electoral loss that alone brings the teepee of his survival come crashing down. Thirty thousand down. Forty. Fifty. It will not matter. Muscat’s massive electoral victory in 2017 did not make the gnawers go away. A deafening defeat for Delia in 2019 will not alone energise a revolution.
Delia might be asking less of his mirror, mirror on the wall than Muscat. But the trick with oracles is to know how to ask the right question. Rather than ask whether he was the greatest of them all, he would rather ask if anyone was great enough to dare step up to replace him. Probably not.
It’s here that the two stories meet.
Muscat and Delia are gripped in a state of mutually assured survival. Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, they despise each other and yet one can’t be who they are without the other.
Fear of the grotesque staying power of Muscat makes Delia’s job too unenviable for people whose job should be to want to be the first over the wall. While Delia is left where he is, Muscat can hobble on towards his hoped-for redemption.
Between them they incarnate the soporific mediocrity of the politics of our time. When the choice is between the rotten and the inept there is only one greater fear than the unknown that lurks behind that dark electoral corner: that things remain the same.
That in spite of all the posturing, all the campaigning, all the writing and all the reading, all the food hampers, all the car lotteries, all the freshly-tarmacked lanes on private property using public funds, all the freshly-painted scrap heap supplements to the Gozo channel fleet, all the scandals, all the reports, all the tunnel plans, all the dead journalists, all the candles and all the flowers, all the marches, all the handshakes, all the speeches, all the flashy TV spots, all the handwritten billboards: after all that and more, nothing changes.
You had Muscat and Delia last week. And you have them next week.
An eternity of this before your eyes.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece