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MALTATODAY 20 February 2022

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8 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 20 FEBRUARY 2022 Risky game or a calculated gamble? Abela keeps nation on tenterhooks Unless he announces a surprise end-March election today, by not dissolving parliament on Monday Robert Abela has unofficially inaugurated a three-month long campaign in which the PN is set to sow doubts in his authenticity, to attack his trust lead. Why would Abela give the opposition more time in its bid to close the gap? asks James Debono IS Robert Abela today fielding an unexpected curve-ball with speculation growing for an end-March election? With the Pope visiting Malta on 2 April, it seems nearly cer- tain that the general election will be held either in May or June, with the campaign offi- cially starting some time after the Easter holidays. But this would mean Abela is giving the opposition more time in its bid to close the gap. The PN was relieved that an early election was not called last year. Party insiders admit the main motivation behind the party's spin back August that an election was due in No- vember, was to force Abela's hand to exclude such an even- tuality at a moment when the Opposition was faced with very negative polling. Abela plausibly says that he decided against such a pre-Christmas election in the national interest, even due to the expected surge of COV- ID-19 cases in winter as has actually happened. With the Omicron variant and inflation taking away some of the feel- good factor generated by the Budget, calling an election in the first trimester of 2022 was not ideal and with the Pope vis- iting in April, May and June ap- pear to be the only options left. Yet Abela toyed with the Opposition by keeping the ru- mour alive in his own Budget speech before the festive break and still does the same over the past weeks. In the meantime, the PN has made small yet in- sufficient gains in the polls, when back in November, La- bour could have won by a big- ger margin than in 2017. Now, latest polls show that Abela would win by the same margin as 2017. The problems for Labour would start if the PN starts edging closer. And that requires time. The raw nerve With inflation biting into purchasing power, the Oppo- sition's focus on Abela's wealth as well as long-standing gov- ernance issues, may touch a raw nerve among some vot- ers. While in good times peo- ple do not care so much about impropriety or the wealth of those in power, they are more likely to do so when the going gets tougher. This explains the effectiveness of Labour's pre- 2013 focus on the secretive pay rise to Cabinet ministers, which came in the wake of an economic downturn after the financial crisis of 2009. It al- so explains why the PN's bill- board, comparing the €1.75 COLA increase with Abela's €17,000 a month Planning Au- thority retainer, was its most effective one in years. The past weeks have indeed exposed Abela's Achilles' heel: that of being depicted as a rent-seeking lawyer whose family benefited from a largesse of public funds under both the Gonzi and even more so under the Muscat administrations, in his role as legal advisor to the Planning Authority. And while Abela may even be admired for being wealthy and successful by a segment of floaters and Labour voters, his patrician pedigree, becoming richer by giving legal advice to an institution whose policies actually benefit big business, also rankles. Labour might try to dismiss what Muscat once described as the 'politics of envy', but this sentiment is grounded in a reasonable sus- picion of politicians with busi- ness connections, especially shady ones. That is why Abela's involve- ment in a property deal back in 2018 for the assignment of property rights from abduc- tion suspect Christian Borg, demands full disclosure and transparency. Still, the focus on Abela's per- sonal wealth could open a can of worms for the PN, at the risk of turning the electoral campaign into a brutal tit-for- tat where serious concerns are confused with inconsequential revelations. This kind of scru- tiny, although important, could be tricky for an opposition whose exponents belong to the same milieu of high-powered lawyers with connections in the business world. And Abela will bank on neu- tralising any attack against him by exposing members of the Opposition for impropriety in a zero-sum game. Despite the limitations of their strategy to discredit Ab- ela, PN strategists know that any recovery in the polls faces the stumbling block of Abela's higher trust ratings. While it remains to be seen how deep or fickle voters' trust in Abela is, past elections show that parties whose leaders were less trusted then their adversaries, were al- ways trounced. In a context where the PN's best hope is losing with a smaller margin then predicted, it can't afford to lose its own people in its bid to diminish the PL's leader. The pressure of high expectations Unlike PN leader Bernard Grech, for whom any margin- al improvement comes as good news, Abela faces very high expectations in his own party, which he may disappoint even if he still wins comfortably but with a lesser margin than his predecessor. Such expectations are un- realistic and even damaging, NEWS ELECTION 2022

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