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A pyrrhic victory, no change

The question that often comes to mind is: how much higher can Prime Minister Joseph Muscat rise? It has been stellar from the very beginning, culminating in the astounding electoral victory of 2013, only to be repeated four years later. Dr Muscat has changed the political landscape, not only making the Labour Party electable but immensely popular.

He has shed the socialist talk of old, built upon the infrastructure set up by his predecessor Alfred Sant and turned the quasi-moribund party into a success story that Dom Mintoff could not dream of.

He had various factors in his favour: an aging Nationalist Party, a new liberal generation that wanted more than the Nationalists would give and a general need for change.

The going has not always been good and there have been many slip ups, particularly on issues like good governance, land-use planning and, yes, issues of corruption.

The biggest hit came with the Panama Papers showing that his closest aides, Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri had secret companies in Panama. He did not move against them, as everyone expected he would. He kept them close, which made the claim that Egrant, a third Panama company, belonged to his wife, very credible, if not logical.

Now a magisterial inquiry has found that Egrant did not belong to Michelle Muscat at all. And, on Sunday, Dr Muscat moved in for the kill. He lashed out at Simon Busuttil, Opposition leader when the Egrant allegations first came out. Dr Muscat accused Dr Busuttil of a frame-up and wanted him to eat his words.

Nationalist Party leader, Adrian Delia, was quick to ‘suspend’ Dr Busuttil from the parliamentary group. That raised speculation of collusion between the two party leaders. Dr Delia wanted to kill two birds with one stone: force Dr Busuttil to assume political responsibility for the manner he had handled the Egrant claims and, conveniently, get him out of the way to get a grip on the party.

He tried to cut his losses and leave Dr Busuttil out in the cold. The effect of that on the party remains to be seen.

The magisterial report came across like a bit of a pyrrhic victory for Dr Muscat. He has won the election hands down, he is top of the polls, he has not stopped rising.

But the allegation that the third Panama company belonged to his wife seemed too much to bear, so much so that he was pushed to tears at the press conference. Dr Mizzi and Mr Schembri had identical companies to Egrant and they had no such qualms and are still there.

That Dr Muscat is off the hook does not mean they are too. It was still wrong to set up those Panama companies and it is still wrong that Dr Muscat has not moved against them. He is still complicit.

The antics of the press conference, to prove his innocence over Egant, just serve to show how wrong he was for leaving them there.

The Prime Minister seems to labour under the delusion that, now that he has been cleared, his whole government is off the hook on all other issues.

That is immensely wrong. This is not a monarchy, even though it increasingly feels like one.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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