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4 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 23 JANUARY 2022 NEWS Muscat's leverage: spectre of a comeback that haunts Abela The promise of 'noise' from a Joseph Muscat placed under the lens of a magisterial inquiry could upset Robert Abela's delicate balancing act to appease the ex-leader's loyalists, and Labour voters uneasy with that legacy. But it's election time, and Abela wants an even larger majority: is Muscat going to upset that, or achieve it for his successor? JAMES DEBONO FORMER Prime Minister Jo- seph Muscat's announcement on Facebook that he could return to public life through a revamped digital presence or 'face to face' meetings with sympathisers, has sent shock- waves in the Labour Party. Muscat's Facebook video, which he published after a po- lice search that confiscated his and his family's mobile phones as part of an anti-corruption investigation, has been in- terpreted as a move aimed at conditioning Prime Minister Robert Abela not to sideline the former party leader. Internally, Muscat remains a force to be reckoned with and the former PM knows he can rally the party's grassroots and upset Abela's balancing act, who wants institutions to probe corruption cases that cast a dark shadow on his pre- decessor's legacy. Muscat's veiled threat, made in the wake of an early morn- ing police raid related to a cor- ruption probe into the Vitals privatization case, inevitably stirred a hornet's nest inside Labour. The raid triggered support for Muscat from its social media doyens, like One TV chairman Jason Micallef, who called on Labourites to rally behind the former lead- er whom he described as "one of us"; old time propagandist Emmanuel Cuschieri eulo- gised the former leader and expressed his readiness to take action in his defence. This kind of allusion to some sort of political comeback is particularly significant for the coming weeks, before an imminent general election in which Robert Abela is keen on gaining a strong mandate of his own. That will come either by retaining or even increasing Labour's super-majority – an unprecedented size in 2013, and doubly so when Muscat repeated this act in 2017 de- spite widespread corruption allegations. If Abela matches his pre- decessor's record, it could consolidate his leadership by eclipsing Muscat's historic landslide victories. But Abela owes part of his support in Labour's internal contest in 2020 to the support of the Muscats; still, even af- ter his election, he surprised many when his vaunted 'con- tinuity' motto appeared to be placed to the wayside with his gestures towards good gov- ernance, police investigations on corruption claims, and overtures to voters who see Muscat's legacy as toxic. Muscat's enduring popularity in Labour This ambivalence towards Muscat is grounded in surveys that show that while Muscat remains popular in the La- bour, he has lost his charm among the wider electorate. A survey by Illum in September showed that overall, just over 30% of the Maltese electorate agree with Muscat's return to politics – 61% were current Labour voters. But the police raid in which the mobile phones of Mus- cat's children were also con- fiscated, was bound to trigger the anger of a segment of La- bour voters who revere Mus- cat. And it is this that makes The raid took place weeks after a media report in No- vember that Muscat was paid €60,000 from Accutor AG and Spring X Media, two Swiss companies owned by Paki- stani lawyer Wasay Bhatti, in the early months of 2020, shortly after his resignation as Prime Minister. Accutor AG had received €3.6 million from Steward Healthcare during the com- pany's takeover of the hospi- tal contract from Vitals Global Healthcare. The sale of public hospitals to Vitals, according to the Auditor General was "vitiated by collusive behaviour" be- tween the government and the company through a secret agreement made before the tender was even issued. In contrast to the Egrant revelations, which actually boosted Muscat's popularity, the Vitals scandal has proved to be the most damning scan- dal in terms of Muscat's lega- cy. Muscat had already hinted at a return to active politics in an interview in August. "If they keep annoying me, I do not exclude it," Muscat said when asked if he considered returning to politics" he re- plied when asked whether he mulled a return to politics. But in the same interview he also excluded the possibility of contesting the upcoming general election or making a future bid for party leader. In the same interview Mus- cat denied taking sides in the 2020 PL leadership race, but was forthcoming in ad- mitting that his wife Michelle spoke of her preference for Abela: "The truth is Michelle did speak with some people and expressed the fact she fa- voured Robert Abela. I did not intervene". Muscat, Vitals and Accutor AG

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