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When all bets are off

Busuttil acted like an 'inexperienced' gambler in the Egrant issue

Some time ago, when the Panama papers revealed two Maltese names which happened to be PEPs, or politically exposed persons, political opinion quickly exerted pressure on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to force them out of government. Yet, Muscat did not, and to that effect, a flailing and ineffective Opposition found in its lap an opportunity to push back and gain some mileage over a highly successful Prime Minister who evidently was taking a huge gamble

In September 2016, I wrote in this blog an entry titled A Leader’s Gamble. There I suggested that while, in his place, I would have opted to simply fire his two colleagues, Muscat’s gamble could be explained as a pragmatic move, where he took “a practical perspective, perhaps to keep the peace, perhaps to avoid splits in his party. So rather than tie his action to a sense of justice or retribution, the PM chose to go the managerial way and ‘contain’ [Konrad] Mizzi because he sees him as an asset of sorts.” This was, in my opinion, a gamble which could have cost Muscat an election, which then was two years ahead.

There I compared Muscat with two other leaders who took risks - Renzi and Cameron - who both found their political career in shambles after they gambled all in referenda which they lost. However, what I was not anticipating then was that unlike Renzi and Cameron, Muscat’s opposite number was not only reckless, but by his actions proved to be a political lightweight, and apart from being gullible, he lacked the stamina by which any experienced political leader would know how to bide for time.[Busuttil's] actions proved [him] to be a political lightweight, and apart from being gullible, he lacked the stamina by which any experienced political leader would know how to bide for time

To be honest, at that point no one would have guessed that the Opposition, then lead by Simon Busuttil, which was not exactly making any headway, would somehow decide to go for the jugular and, without batting an eyelid, buy into the Egrant story as it was neatly spun on top of the Panama Papers. I remember then thinking how reckless and infantile it was for Busuttil not to simply keep pushing on Panama, which providentially fell in his lap thanks to a consortium of foreign media. Instead, Busuttil ingenuously decided to go for a homespun addon, an allegation woven into a narrative around Egrant’s alleged ownership, which, for those who cared to look closely, was clearly a grotesque fabrication.

Apart from what we know now in the light of the Egrant Inquiry, even then it was evident that politically, Busuttil was getting it all wrong. In a way, Busuttil acted like an inexperienced gambler, who, thinking that he was on a winning streak with Panama, then decided to bet everything he had on Egrant. The result was there to be seen. Miscalculating the electoral mood, Busuttil lost the early elections called by Muscat, while widening the gap between Labour and a badly beaten PN. Busuttil might have been led to believe that the electorate was gullible and easy enough. Hardly did he realise that the Maltese electorate could see through him.

Only a political novice would have failed to note that in 2017, the Maltese electorate was refusing to get catapulted back into the dark times of the 1980s when polarisation was so unbearable that many had to simply leave their place of birth and upbringing and seek a life abroad. Whether coming from the right, left or the lofty centre, anyone who takes the electorate for granted would always do so at his or her peril. The electoral mood cannot be simply manipulated, especially at a time where social media, in all its nefarious volatility, can blow up in anyone’s face, especially in the face of those who try to use it to manipulate others.The greatest loser was Maltese society whose democracy was under considerable threat

Ultimately, the outcome of the Egrant inquest is both sobering and saddening. It is sobering because finally one would hope that Maltese politics will be spared from this sort of underhand manoeuvres and maybe, just maybe, anyone who is tempted to get away with lies while hoping to then bury such lies under some elusive electoral success, will think twice. We had enough of that in Malta’s 54-year-old history as an independent country. It is saddening because it confirms that there are still some, who, without any remorse, are all too ready to wreck the democratic process by attacking anyone in their way with any force conceivable while making sure that Maltese politics will continue to wallow in tribalism.

Apart from the callousness by which Joseph Muscat was attacked as an individual together with his family and his close friends, the Egrant campaign was a catastrophic political move where a Leader of the Opposition chose to gamble everything he had in such an irresponsible way. Busuttil lost in a spectacular manner. But the greatest loser was Maltese society whose democracy was under considerable threat.

Then, writing in this blog, I compared the PN’s campaign with the Brazilian Opposition which managed to topple President Dilma Rousseff. As we have subsequently seen the Brazilian crisis going deeper and deeper, I now feel relieved that Malta was lucky not to find itself in a situation where a government would have been elected on false pretences. Luckily the Maltese electorate proved to have stamina, and those who might still be tempted to undermine this electorate - let alone the members of their own respective political parties who, unlike the past, now have the power and vote to choose who is their leader - are now warned by recent history.

History’s warning to politicians is clear. Those who fail to heed it stand to lose everything they gamble, especially when all bets are off.

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