[ANALYSIS] An early Christmas? How Abela is lowering the heat

The PN needs to keep up the heat on government in its so-far elusive gamble to cut Labour’s insurmountable lead – but with the PN’s own demoralised troops, Robert Abela can bank on his supporters’ enthusiasm being galvanised by the polls

Prime Minister and Labour leader Robert Abela
Prime Minister and Labour leader Robert Abela

After weeks of intense pre-budget campaigning in what many interpreted as a sign of an imminent election, Robert Abela has suddenly withdrawn from the fray.

The Prime Minister gave the public a break by stopping Sunday sermons in party clubs and refocusing debate on a cannabis reform Bill. The move left the Opposition disoriented at a time when it was expecting a general election.

Abela’s back-seat approach has left it up to the Nationalist Party to keep up the momentum it needs to mount a credible challenge in the election, which has to take place in the first half of 2022.

But is this Abela’s way of neutering the Opposition or just a well-deserved Christmas break for a country fatigued by COVID-19 and politics?

As things stand it is the Opposition which needs to keep up the heat on government in its, so-far elusive gamble, to cut Labour’s insurmountable lead in the polls.

A de-escalation of political heat benefits the party in government, which only needs to consolidate its lead in the surveys without taking unnecessary risks.

And while the Opposition needs to boost the morale of its demoralised troops, Abela can bank on his supporters’ enthusiasm galvanized by surveys.

Abela’s no-risk strategy

To some extent this is not a new strategy. Since being elected PL leader Abela has avoided any debate with the new Opposition leader Bernard Grech.

Abela had constantly denied Grech a shared platform, which he desperately needs to build up his public persona and gravitas as an alternative prime minister.

By the time Abela would face Grech in face-to-face electoral debates, most voters would have already made up their minds.

Moreover, Abela has also not given interviews with the independent media, avoiding uncomfortable questions on his relationship with his predecessor.

Abela has largely kept aloof of partisan confrontation, benefitting from the inevitable exposure in his role as Prime Minister rather than as party leader.

And de-escalation comes with an added benefit for Labour; it goes down well with middle-of-the-road voters turned off by constant electioneering and yearning for a serene and elongated Christmas season.

For the Opposition, this represents another dilemma. The Opposition cannot afford to lower the heat on serious issues like the scandalous €100 million termination penalty in the hospitals deal with Steward but at the same time it cannot afford to look like a divisive Grinch out of synch with a public yearning for a time out.

Festive cannabis

Additionally, the Opposition has little to gain from the controversy generated by the last major Bill being discussed in parliament before the Christmas recess - the cannabis reform Bill.

The controversy has only served to reinforce the PN’s detachment from its own liberal wing and unable to score points among conservatives, because of Grech’s initial flirtation with the proposed law when he claimed credit for government’s inclusion of provisions for the sale of cannabis from non-profit clubs.

Labour is fighting on a favourable terrain – it appeals to social liberal young voters while at the same time exposing Grech’s contradictions to offset any collateral damage among its own socially conservative voters.

In its attempt to score any points among conservative voters, the PN may well end up alienating its own liberals who recoil at the party’s reluctance to ‘normalise’ a lifestyle which they consider mainstream.

While Labour does risk being out of sync with a silent majority that sees cannabis legalisation a step too far, it is more likely for people benefitting from the reform who will change their vote, than people who are sceptical of it.

As happened on other issues like same sex adoptions, ‘culture wars’ have been more damaging to the PN than to Labour, whose conservative wing is dormant and loyal.

In contrast, Labour has evaded controversy on environmental issues, by postponing major decisions like the Marsaskala yacht marina and land reclamation to after the election, in a bid to avoid damaging controversies in local communities.

The risk is that residents will wake up to these controversies in the first year of a renewed Labour government, when the Opposition will probably still be reeling from a third consecutive defeat.

Abela’s millstone

What remains problematic for Abela is the Muscat legacy and the persistent presence of Konrad Mizzi, something which is very apparent from the ‘neutrality’ of Labour MPs in the public accounts committee quizzing Mizzi on the Electrogas contract.

Labour MPs have also been coy in ‘reprimanding’ fellow MP Rosianne Cutajar who was found guilty of an ethics breach. The Standards Committee reprimand is without consequences for Cutajar.

Yet, by keeping the spotlight on these issues, it is the Opposition which has to be careful not to sound too divisive by engaging in shouting matches, on an issue from which it rarely benefitted in electoral terms. A major problem for the PN is how to keep interest in a series of scandals involving the people we have been hearing about for the past five years while not sounding like a broken record.

Within this context, Abela still manages to perform an incredible acrobatic feat. He gives the impression of change to voters who resent Muscat’s legacy while keeping loyalists on board.  Abela manages to do this by setting a safe distance between himself and his predecessor without actually reneging him.

The problem for Abela is that time is catching up with him and people are wondering why nobody has been arraigned on corruption cases involving past Labour ministers and officials like Konrad Mizzi.

While people are keen on switching off to enjoy an early Christmas, possibly to compensate for last year’s missed festivities, this period is also of crucial political importance, being the time of the year when extended families and friends get together, possibly also reinforcing perceptions on politics and the approaching election.

This is why it is important for parties to end the year on a positive note. And this may be one more reason for Abela to avoid controversy and for Grech to try and leave a final mark.

Although, even here Abela can afford to keep the PN guessing on whether a quick campaign awaits them in the winter months ahead or whether the electoral appointment will come in late spring.