With a general election in Malta approaching and with modern general elections often developing into Presidential contests, a lot of attention is falling on the performance of the leaders of the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. Both Robert Abela (PL) and Bernard Grech (PN) will be leading their party during a general election campaign for the first time.
However, while Bernard Grech has had a relatively tranquil baptism of fire as Party Leader, Robert Abela, being also the Prime Minister of Malta, has had to face all the problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is interesting to note that recent polling has shown that Robert Abela is trusted more by potential voters than Bernard Grech and the Labour Party more than the Nationalist Party. Indeed, by early April, 2021, a newspaper poll showed that the gap in trust was as much as 11 points between the party leaders and 6 points between the political parties. What has led to the great gap in trust between the two party leaders?
First of all, despite occupying the position for the first time in his political career, Robert Abela has shown great qualities of leadership as Malta’s Prime Minister. Although faced by the great difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, he has managed to keep the economy functioning through various measures aimed at sustaining hard-hit businesses and industry. At the same time, various social measures have had a positive impact on the lives of the workers affected by the pandemic.
Furthermore, his decision to avoid putting the country into a total lockdown, as demanded by some observers of the situation, has proved to have been the correct one. Moreover, the medical services have proved equal to the daunting challenge presented by the pandemic and have not collapsed under the strain as predicted by some pessimists. Abela has also overseen the introduction of various measures aimed at strengthening good governance and the rule of law in Malta following the fallout from the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the revelations exposing the alleged corruption of people close to former Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat.
On the other hand, Bernard Grech’s leadership of the Nationalist Party has been a mixture of successes and failures. Grech has been successful in uniting most of the party under his leadership and has also stopped the haemorrhage of PN supporters but he still has not solved the problem of the former leader, Adrian Delia. Indeed, Delia has gone on behaving like a loose cannon, making public statements which have embarrassed Bernard Grech. He has also acted almost as if he was an independent candidate, even refusing to form part of Grech’s shadow cabinet. The fact that Delia is still very popular with many PN supporters has also meant that Bernard Grech has to use kid gloves when dealing with Delia.
Being indebted to several members of the old PN establishment for supporting his bid to become PN leader has also severely handicapped Bernard Grech’s freedom of action.
Being indebted to several members of the old PN establishment for supporting his bid to become PN leader has also severely handicapped Bernard Grech’s freedom of action. This could be seen when he appointed the new shadow cabinet. Indeed, changes in responsibilities were limited due to the resistance by several established politicians and their supporters that Grech had to face. The polls have amply shown that Bernard Grech badly needs to rejuvenate the Nationalist Party. Given his indebtedness to the old party establishment, this is proving to be a very tough nut to crack for the PN leader. The situation is further complicated by the fact that former leader, Simon Busuttil is still very politically active and retains a certain degree of popularity with Nationalist Party supporters as well as great influence due to his occupying the position of Secretary General of the European People’s Party (EPP).
Bernard Grech has also faced a political backlash due to certain mistakes he has committed: his having a personal history of tax irregularities, failing to pay outstanding taxes for several years; his MEPs’ criticism of Malta in the European Parliament; his politicisation of the COVID-19 pandemic; his “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds” approach to various issues, such as Grech’s stance on the cannabis decriminalisation reform when, in order to try and please both those in favour and those against the reform, he did not take a position against decriminalisation but at the same time ridiculed the reform as being simply a vote-catching exercise; his attempt to attract youths to the Nationalist Party and then ridiculing their intelligence with his aforementioned uncalled-for comment on the cannabis decriminalisation reform; and his failure to adequately censure Nationalist MP, Jason Azzopardi for ethical failures.
While Prime Minister and Labour Leader, Robert Abela still faces challenging problems such as restoring Malta’s positive image overseas, halting rampant over-development by the construction industry, and finding a fitting solution with Brussels regarding the perennial problem of irregular migration, Nationalist Party Leader, Bernard Grech’s problems seem to be much more difficult and much more complicated to solve. With the next general election fast approaching, his party is still at a substantial disadvantage compared to the Labour Party.
Grech is fully cognisant of the fact that a very heavy defeat at the next general election could mean the end of his leadership of the Nationalist Party. It is imperative for his survival to at least manage to reduce the gap in votes between his party and the Labour Party.
Conversely, if Robert Abela manages to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic while at the same time continuing to keep the economy strong, while simultaneously introducing new social measures and regaining Malta’s lost international prestige, his path to electoral victory will be assured as well as his consolidation of the leadership of the Maltese nation as Prime Minister and that of the Labour Party.
Both Robert Abela and Bernard Grech face a thoroughly challenging phase of their leadership with the odds being stacked firmly in favour of the Prime Minister and Labour leader due to his impeccable performance to date.