Abela leads on his own steam, as the super-majority keeps Labour firmly in power

Robert Abela has won the election with nearly the same amount of votes as Joseph Muscat in 2017 despite a drop in the turnout. In this way his mandate is no longer the one he inherited from Muscat in 2019 and he has secured his own. The question is how will he use it?

For the past three years since he replaced his disgraced predecessor, Abela had to walk on a tight-rope between continuity and change. Now it has been reinforced by a popular mandate that allows him to no longer be conditioned by the dark shadow cast by his predecessor. He is now his own man and so he is expected to bring closure to the various spin-offs from the mother of all scandals – Panamagate, and to implement the recommendations of the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry.  And he also has the power to send a strong message against hatred by finally giving public recognition to the murdered journalist.

The question is: will he?

The result itself suggests that the electorate has rewarded Labour for its economic and social policies, and Abela for his handling of the pandemic, but the new government cannot ignore the spike in non-voters, a segment which includes former Labour voters who could not bring themselves to vote PN but whose disgust over corruption and collusion with big business was a primary reason for staying home.

While Abela’s mandate is now strong and clear, regaining the trust of a segment which stayed away from the democratic process should also be a priority.  If not, we may well end up in a situation where the Opposition is no longer mediated by the electoral and parliamentary process, but oscillates between apathy and complacency and periodic bouts of anger.

Abela should be credited for his solid leadership as the country moved from one crisis to another: a political crisis which rocked Labour after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, a global pandemic which struck two months after he assumed his office, the greylisting by FATF, and now an ongoing war in the heart of Europe.

Yet now that the election is over, Abela needs to be less a leader of a party and more of a statesman. He now has the advantage that elections are five years away, while his margin of victory gives him the same opportunity squandered by Muscat in 2013; that of implementing reforms without constantly pandering to powerful lobbies.

Issues like low wages, the long-term sustainability of pensions, environmental degradation, climate change, housing affordability and corruption demand action in ways which may alienate lobbies which have backed Labour, but which in the process have eaten away its very soul. In this sense the raspberry blown by non-voters stands as a warning that not is well in the state of Denmark.

In this context, Abela’s super-majority may be a double-edged sword.  With the next election also in the bag – as it is extremely difficult for any opposition to overturn a 39,474 gap in five years – Labour may well feel it can ride roughshod on any opposition or dissenting voice. And it was Abela’s fear of losing this supermajority which contributed to major but positive U-turns like his change of heart on the Marsaskala yacht marina.

He has now to prove that this change of heart was genuine. For it is during the first two years of any legislature that governments face the greatest pressure to press the accelerator to kick-start the economy by allowing more construction projects.

Abela himself has promised that the greater the trust of the people, the more humble he will become. Now he is expected to show that sense of humility in governing the country. And while Abela may feel emboldened by the implosion of the PN, he now also has to take into account ‘non-voters’ who may still sway the next election either by switching to a reformed PN or by incubating new parties.

He is also expected to show statesmanship in an international context characterised by instability and a relapse to gunship diplomacy, by giving meaning to Malta’s active neutrality while anchoring the country in the democratic camp.  He will have to anticipate a possible rift with China over Taiwan, in view of Chinese ownership of one of the power stations. And to do this he also has to act fast on restoring the country’s reputation away from selling passports to rich oligarchs and attracting ‘investments’ by shady characters, to a forward-looking country which attracts sustainable investment in its industrial base.