MaltaToday, 16 April 2008 | Back from the wilderness


NEWS | Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Back from the wilderness

The former Labour deputy leader George Abela is back, 10 years since he resigned in protest at Alfred Sant’s call for an early election. Now he is reaching out in a bid for the Labour leadership. By JAMES DEBONO

Starting the race as an outsider, and supported only by his friends in the “Diaspora” of exiles from the Malta Labour Party and the General Workers Union, George Abela is fast making inroads in the party of which he wants to be its next leader.
Much of this new support was witnessed by the sizeable crowd gathered in Bormla to listen to what the former Labour deputy leader had to say. Initially, Abela’s bedrock of support seemed to come from fellow Labourites who had falled out with Sant, namely the economist Alfred Mifsud, the former minister and 1992 leadership rival Lino Spiteri, and former party secretary-general Dominic Fenech.
But Abela also found the support of the other parallel exiles from the GWU diaspora, the union of which he was also its lawyer, who fell out with Tony Zarb in the past few years following his trouncing of Manwel Micallef in the union’s leadership race in 2006.
Now riding on the anti-establishment ticket, with two months to go and four other candidates splitting the vote, Abela could erode support for the other contenders.
Yet by appealing to the party’s old guard Abela could find it hard to penetrate Muscat’s constituency which includes the party’s youth movement. Abela’s appeal to the old guard was underlined by the choice of the Bormla regatta club as the venue of his first public meeting.
Michael Falzon – who represents the more traditional and anti-Sant wing in the MLP – seems to be the most vulnerable to Abela’s inroads in the Labour camp.
As Abela makes inroads in Falzon’s traditional base of voters, Evarist Bartolo also has time on his side to make inroads into the party’s progressive wing – effectively, what initially looked like a two-way race between Muscat and Falzon may now turn into a dead heat four-horse race.
And although still improbable, the prospect of a final run-off between George Abela and the young and favourably touted Joseph Muscat is now emerging as a possibility.
The presence of two Labour MPs, the erstwhile conservative and moral crusader Adrian Vassallo, and former PN candidate Marlene Pullicino, at his first public rally also signals the end of Abela’s exile from the party’s mainstream. While Vassallo is keeping his distance from Abela, arguing that he simply attended to ask Abela questions made by common Labourites, the popular female MP Marlene Pullicino is making it clear that Abela is the most suitable candidate to attract middle of the road voters.
Abela’s rehabilitation was also confirmed by the extensive coverage of Abela’s candidature on Labour’s One TV and the GWU’s organ l-Orizzont. This contrasts sharply with secretary-general Jason Micallef’s disparaging remarks on Abela as soon as he announced his candidature during a Xarabank programme a month ago.
And by presenting Muscat as the “establishment’s candidate”, the Abela camp is banking on rallying the support of an ideologically disparate coalition united by a desire for a complete break with the past.
But in presenting himself as the “anti establishment candidate” Abela has to contend with his own past of deputy leader of the same party which first opposed and than froze Malta’s EU membership application in 1996.
Ironically had the party taken Abela’s advice on not calling an early election in 1998, Malta’s membership application could have remained in the freezer for a longer time.
Abela’s revelation that the Sant led MLP government was at some point considering a convergence with the Nationalist opposition on Malta’s future relations with the European Union helps in absolving Abela from history’s verdict.
Yet it is Joseph Muscat who could foil these plans by presenting himself as the candidate with the progressive edge when it comes to policy issues. His clear stance in favour of the introduction of divorce through a free vote in parliament and his commitment to European Socialist values could amplify the contradictions in the Abela camp, which includes left-wingers like Dominic Fenech as well as right-wingers favouring widespread privatisations like Alfred Mifsud.
But the perception that Muscat is the “anointed one” poses a great dilemma for the popular MEP. While the perception of being Jason Micallef’s own favourite could help Muscat garner support among Alfred Sant loyalists, it could be a great handicap with those who want a complete break. Including a break from Jason Micallef, which erodes Muscat’s support among those who agree with his vision but who would like Micallef to assume his responsibilities and resign.
Muscat immediately distanced himself from Jason Micallef’s disparaging comments on Abela. He has also condemned any attempt to exclude him from the race. Yet how far can Muscat go to distance himself from Micallef without risking loss of support among delegates loyal to the present secretary-general?
If the Abela camp manages to collect enough signatures to force an extraordinary general meeting to discuss a motion to give members a say in the election of the new leader, Muscat will have little to gain from his supposed links with the Sant camp.
Delegates would be in an unenviable position of deciding whether they should include or exclude the party’s rank and file which they represent in electing the new leader. If the motion is approved, the current administration would have very little say in the election. In such a case any association with the present secretary-general would be a liability for Muscat.
What’s sure is that Abela’s anti-establishment candidature and his recriminations against the obstacles created by the cliques who wanted to exclude him from the race, could have long-term consequences for the Labour party.
If Abela loses an acrimonious contest, which leaves him bitter against the new party leader, the Nationalist Party will not miss the opportunity of using the Abela trump card to attack the MLP for the next decade.
With so many candidates battling for Labour’s soul at different levels, the chances are that the opposition will find it hard to recover unity and a sense of purpose.
Co-opting George Abela and the other losers in an inclusive party could prove the next MLP’s leader most difficult task. Keeping Abela in Labour’s mainstream and ensuring a fair contest could be the best antidote for future troubles in the MLP. Anything short of that would be a present to the Nationalist party.

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.




MaltaToday News
16 April 2008

Nuns take ‘vow of silence’ on Lourdes Home abuse

Back from the wilderness

Labour leadership

MaltaToday in Ombudsman’s 2007 selected case-list

Maltese man charged with human trafficking freed

Bishops call for prayer to defend unborn at Council of Europe

MLP accuses government of being ‘anti-national’

Increase in Maltese travellers in February

New law introduces civil liability for environmental damage

MIDI borehole seeping mud into the sea

Charles Thake sustains minor injuries on ‘Agora’ set

Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email