Europe’s smallest island state heads to the polls on 3 June. The country has experienced unprecedented economic growth (5% last year), unemployment is at a record low, and over 30,000 foreigners are now working in Malta: that’s one out of every seven workers. The country has also quickly become a role model for its support of civil liberties. Malta also ably hosted the latest Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Valletta in 2015.
When Dr Joseph Muscat led his Partit Laburista (Labour Party, PL) to victory in the March 2013 elections, he became Prime Minister of the strongest government in Europe: the PL obtained almost 55% of the popular vote and had a comfortable nine-seat majority in a 69-member Parliament, all nicely secured with a voter turnout of over 90%. (This victory was achieved, by the way, with a ‘single transferable vote’ system of proportional representation which tends to favour minorities; and yet only two parties in Malta have managed to get candidates elected to Parliament since 1966; no coalition-building in Parliament has been necessary since then.)
The PL maintained its formidable share of the national vote in the May 2014 Elections to the European Parliament; as well as in the April 2015 elections for local (municipal) councils. And it was on track for what many assumed would be a ‘walk over’ in a general election that could have been called anytime up to March 2018.
Why, then, call a snap election? And at the same time as Malta concludes its onerous obligations as Chair of the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union?
The answer stems from a wave of allegations of corruption and other improprieties, triggered by the publication of the infamous ‘Panama Papers’: a leak by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of millions of document files belonging to the Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca & Co, the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm. Implicated in the accusations are Konrad Mizzi, a Minister in Muscat’s Cabinet (and former PL Deputy Leader), and Keith Schembri, Muscat’s own Chief of Staff, who are both accused of opening companies in Panama and allegedly using these to launder money. Schembri is also accused of having pocketed funds as kickbacks from the sale of Maltese passports to non-EU nationals. Both Mizzi and Schembri have vigorously denied these claims.
Even closer to the Prime Minister is the claim that his own wife is the beneficial owner of yet another Panama registered firm which was paid over $1million by a firm belonging to the daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan. The evidence for this had allegedly been kept in a safe located in a kitchen at Pilatus Bank in Malta. Muscat dismisses these accusations as blatant lies, a calumny meant to tarnish him and his family and threaten the success of the country’s financial industry which, by the way, stands to gain from the fallout of Brexit.
Whether these individuals actually committed a crime or are the victims of an elaborate frame-up remains to be seen. Two magisterial inquiries are underway; but their results are not likely to be announced before 3 June. The public debate has meanwhile shifted to more serious concerns on governance and probity: what have fallen under scrutiny are the actions of a number of institutions (including the Police, the Malta Financial Services Authority and the Financial Investigative Analysis Unit) as well as the disclosures of a whistle-blower and of investigative journalists and bloggers in connection with the operation of financial services.
The leader of the Opposition and of the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party, PN) Dr Simon Busuttil is driving an electoral campaign which, he argues, is more about basic values and principles and less about conventional electoral promises and programmes. He also benefits from the defection of two PL MPs (a former Minister and his wife) who wish to ‘heal’ Malta from this newly-acquired shady status.
The PL remains consistently in the lead in the polls, but the PL-PN gap seems to be narrowing. However, there are many ‘don’t knows’ being reported and many voters have yet to make up their mind as to whether to reward a Labour Government for its impressive performance in delivering economic prosperity; or whether to condemn it for (allegedly) brazenly transforming their country into Europe’s Panama.
Meanwhile, with so much talk of bribes, laundering, kickbacks and trust funds, the local media and public have been rudely awakened to the machinations of offshore finance.
Godfrey Baldacchino is Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta, Malta, and a member of the International Advisory Board of The Round Table: Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. The opinion piece represents the author’s own views and the usual disclaimers apply.
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