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MALTATODAY 26 December 2021 LOOKING BACK edition

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7 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 26 DECEMBER 2021 NEWS Christmas specials ter the next election. 4. Abela enjoys toying with the Opposition by keeping it guessing on the election date, and while it was Grech's PN which started the rumuor, Ab- ela was infantile in playing the game right up to the end Since August the PN did everything in its power to push the idea that an early election was on the horizon in what may well have been an attempt at galvanising an apathetic pale blue vote. Yet Abela did cross a line by keeping speculation rife af- ter his own Budget speech, in which he gave credence to a November election by saying: "It's the people who'll decide if this Budget gets implemented". He only excluded an election a week later, faced by the angry reaction of retailers who feared that an election would deal an- other blow to the shopping sea- son right before Christmas. By deliberately keeping spec- ulation rife and not excluding a November election at that stage, Abela's toying with the Opposition started sounding infantile and irresponsible. And while Abela may certain- ly not be blamed for a rumour spun by the Opposition in its own newspaper in summer by prolonging uncertainty in his own budget speech, Abela was actively contributing to uncer- tainty. 5. On COVID, Abela changed tack after polls punished him for his over-optimistic and un- necessary statements. Grech was consistently cautious It was COVID which posed the most serious threat to Rob- ert Abela's hold on the elector- ate. In the first months of 2021, a spike in cases led to another soft lockdown despite Abela's earlier promise of a fast return to normality, based on vaccine optimism, which was overtaken by the Delta variant. Yet Abela also showed a re- markable ability to change tack, by adopting greater caution in the following months. And de- spite these hiccups, Abela cap- italised on a successful vaccine roll-out, continued support for workers and industries exposed to the crisis, and on public yearning for strong leadership during a national crisis. COVID also offered the na- tional government a break from EU spending rules and new funding for the green conver- sion of the economy. But a re- surgence of the pandemic trig- gered by new vaccine resistant variants like Omicron could well undermine Abela's future ability to contain the economic and social havoc which may be unleashed by another wave. Still, while Abela was fairly blamed for irresponsible and over-optimistic declarations af- ter the first lockdown, he can't be blamed for the emergence of new variants, and people may be even likelier to trust a strong leader in challenging times. Moreover, while the increase in public spending during COV- ID was more than justified, with an election approaching Labour may be tempted to use this flexibility to its advantage. On the other hand Bernard Grech's prudence before and during the second lockdown did resonate with public anxi- eties, but COVID became less of any issue after Abela him- self heeded expert advice and adopted caution as his own flagship, even by erring on the side of caution. Moreover the PN's Budget response was underlined by a fiscal conservatism which con- trasts with the country's expec- tations and which is currently out of fashion across Europe, where Keynesian economics is back in vogue. 6. Abela still shies away from debating Grech Since being elected PL leader Abela has avoided any debate with the new Opposition leader Bernard Grech. Abela had con- stantly denied Grech a shared platform, which he desperate- ly needs to build up his public persona and gravitas as an al- ternative prime minister. By the time Abela would face Grech in face-to-face electoral debates, most voters would have already made up their minds. More- over, Abela has also not given full blown interviews with the independent media, avoiding uncomfortable questions on his relationship with his predeces- sor. As things stand it is the Op- position which needs to keep up the heat on government in its, so-far elusive gamble, to cut Labour's insurmountable lead in the polls. A de-escalation of political heat benefits the par- ty in government, which only needs to consolidate its lead in the surveys without taking un- necessary risks. 7. Neither Abela nor Grech come across as men of great convictions with any grand plan to save democracy from the corrupting influence of big business, or the environment from bad policies of the last decade Neither Abela nor Grech come across as visionaries with a bold plan to build a second republic as Muscat project- ed himself in 2013. None have come up with proposals aimed at setting a firewall between politicians and big business by introducing party financing and clamping down on private donations. Both dismiss calls to change local plans and planning policies on the absurd premise that development rights cannot be taken away. And both are re- luctant to commit themselves to raise the minimum wage, with the PN vaguely commit- ting itself to introducing a liv- ing wage without giving any details. In this way both leaders seem to lack the qualities expected of transformative leaders and are more focused on balancing acts which keep as many differ- ent contradictory interests on board. But while Abela is con- strained by the realities of actu- ally governing the country, one would expect Grech to be less hinged and bolder in articulat- ing a vision of a fairer Malta. Instead Grech is hinged by the contradictions in his own party which prevent him from focusing on giving the wider electorate a compelling reason for believing in the change he promises. And while Grech still weighs his every word, not to upset categories of voters like hunters or building contrac- tors, at the risk of sounding bland, Abela keeps hitting the jackpot by selectively deliver- ing on promises like cannabis reform which on balance are vote-winners among strategic minorities, or postponing con- tentious decisions like a pro- posed marina in Marsaskala and land reclamation to after the election. And having led the country from a political crisis through a pandemic to an electoral cam- paign, it remains hard to deci- pher how Abela would govern in normal times, if that will ev- er be the case.

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