Maltese Candidates Have Different Views of European Union

Maltese voters face a choice in elections on June 3 between two prime ministerial candidates who have starkly different views on the path ahead for the European Union (EU) and their country’s role in a future EU army.

On the question of whether the solution for the EU is more or less Europe, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of the Labour Party (PL) has said that a “multispeed Europe” could be a viable option. His opponent, Nationalist Party (PN) leader Simon Busuttil, has, on the other hand, warned against the populist tide sweeping across Europe and said that people want more Europe, not less.

Similarly, on Malta’s role in a future EU army, while Muscat has categorically stated that Malta will not join such an endeavor, Busuttil has called on EU member states to consider merging their armed forces, questioning whether it makes sense for countries to have separate armies.

Malta is deeply divided on this issue. Half of the population say the country’s constitution is outdated; the other half want leaders to back off from Malta’s sacred position of neutrality.

The snap election

On May 1, Muscat called a snap general election on June 3, a year before the end of his term in office. His decision, which came amid allegations that his wife was involved in improper business dealings, is seen by many analysts as an attempt to quash the instability that has rocked the EU’s smallest member state.

Under the PL government, Malta has seen strong economic performance, low levels of unemployment, and the recent announcement of a budget surplus. However, the government is embroiled in allegations of corruption and government kickbacks that threaten to wreck Muscat’s political career.

Last year, Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and Konrad Mizzi, a minister within the office of the prime minister, were named in the notorious Panama Papers leaks. The leak of files from the database of the world’s fourth-largest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, revealed that politicians, their families, and close associates had exploited secretive offshore tax regimes.

More recently, Busuttil  claimed he had evidence that showed Schembri was allegedly taking kickbacks from the sale of Maltese passports to Russian citizens seeking to enter Europe. Schembri has denied the allegations.

Muscat became personally entangled in the scandal after Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia released documents that allegedly show that the prime minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat, received $1 million through an offshore company set up by Mossack Fonseca. The funds transferred to Michelle Muscat are said to have come from the daughter of the famously corrupt president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.

While Muscat has vehemently denied these allegations—he has called them “the greatest lie in Malta’s political history”—Busuttil has urged the Maltese people to kick out the “institutionalized corruption that has swept through the country’s current government.”

Muscat, along with the others accused of corruption, are under a formal magisterial investigation. The fact that a decision has not been reached in the case puts the public in a difficult position when choosing whom to elect on June 3.

Coalition politics

Malta’s traditionally tribal, dualistic political system is being challenged for the first time since the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 with the introduction of a novelty for Maltese politics: a multiparty, national coalition.

After the PN suffered its worst defeat in 2013, the party teamed up with the newly created Democratic Party (PD), led by former PL member of Parliament Marlene Farrugia. The PN and PD forged a political alliance—National Force—that will run against the PL. This coalition seeks to consolidate votes and present voters with a united front against the PL.

According to Michael Briguglio, a sociology lecturer at the University of Malta, the National Force could challenge the PL’s firm grip on Parliament. “A pre-electoral coalition avoids splitting votes, which can work to the detriment of other political parties, given that in Malta first-preference votes determine which party wins the election,” he said.

Domestic policy Issues

Muscat has promised a tax refund for all those that earn below €60,000, higher pensions, and has recently raised the minimum wage. The PN, too, has promised to slash by 10 percent income taxes for small businesses.

More important for Maltese, however, is the poor state of their island’s infrastructure. Muscat has promised that, if elected, he would resurface all of Malta’s roads—a project that would cost €700 million.

The PN has said that, if elected, it would undertake Malta’s most comprehensive infrastructure overhaul. This would include a metro system, which is seen by many Maltese as essential for addressing the country’s severe traffic problem.

This is the first time that the incumbent prime minister of an EU member state is running for re-election while facing corruption charges.

The Maltese people face a difficult decision: do they kick out a government that has spearheaded strong economic performance but is allegedly riddled by corruption?

On June 3, the answer will be clear.

Matthew Lowell is the director of business development and a senior researcher at Binda Consulting International, a political and international development consultancy based in Malta.

Image: Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, has called a snap general election on June 3 after his wife became embroiled in a corruption scandal. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)