Friday, June 14, 2024

Scandal-hit Malta struggles with next EU commissioner candidate

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What Malta lacks in size, it has made up for in controversy ahead of the EU elections as its commissioner candidate, the former prime minister, and multiple former and current officials were charged with criminal offences, overshadowing all other aspects of the upcoming vote.

Maltese citizens will vote on 8 June for local council representatives and their members of the European Parliament, and according to recent surveys published by local media, the centre-left Labour Party (PL) is leading both votes.

The surveys point to a voter turnout of around 69% of the eligible 355,000 voters for both local and EU elections, with some 51% expected to vote for the ruling Labour Party (S&D), in power since 2013, 40% for the Nationalist Party (EPP), 4.5% for Imperium Europa, and 4% for other parties and candidates.

Meanwhile, data from Europe Elects finds that only the PL and Nationalist Party (PN) will send representatives to the European Parliament, with its six seats split evenly between them, and other forces unlikely to get a look in.

Those in the running

Maltese voters have 39 candidates to choose from: Nine PL candidates, including the incumbent Alex Agius Saliba, eight PN candidates, including European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and the incumbent David Casa, four ADPD (European Green Party) candidates, two far-right Christian conservative ABBA (European Christian Political Movement) candidates, one Volt (Volt Europa) candidate, two from far-right neo-fascist Imperium Europa, and 13 independents.

Despite the PL’s overall lead, Metsola has the most votes, with 16%, according to a local poll, ahead of 8% for Agius Saliba. All other candidates have less than 2% each. Metsola’s popularity stems from a strong PN electorate, as well as her stint as European Parliament president, which was well-received in such a small country.

Other PN candidates likely to take a seat include incumbent David Casa and Peter Agius. From the left side, Daniel Attard and Clint Flores look set to take seats two and three, respectively.

According to other local polls, Norman Lowell, convicted of inciting racial hatred in 2008, and Terrence Portelli from IE look set to take more votes than the rest of the other small parties and independents combined but are unlikely to make it to Parliament.

But overshadowing the rise of the far right and discourse on policy is a long-simmering scandal that has rocked the ruling party and thrown a spanner in the works of who will take over from incumbent Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli (PL).

Chris Fearne

Fearne, deputy prime minister, EU funds minister, and former health minister, was charged with fraud and misappropriation of public funds over a public-private concession that saw three state hospitals handed over to a private company. 

The criminal action against him comes after a magisterial inquiry named Fearne, former prime minister Joseph Muscat, his ex-chief of staff Keith Schembri, former energy and health minister Konrad Mizzi, current Central Bank Governor Edward Scicluna and several other officials and private individuals, all of who are set to face similar charges.

He stepped down from the commissioner’s candidacy but maintains his innocence and has not ruled out a return to politics once his name is cleared.

Joseph Muscat

Former prime minister Muscat, forced to resign in 2019 over links to the man charged with ordering the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 and crowned the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Network’s most corrupt person in 2019, was also rumoured to be headed to Brussels at one point.

Now facing criminal charges of money laundering amid the Vitals scandal and suspected of involvement in other scandals, including Electrogas and a lack of action in the aftermath of Caruana Galizia’s murder, he does not seem a likely candidate.

Despite this, Muscat enjoys significant support among the PL electorate, more so even than the incumbent Prime Minister Robert Abela, according to some observers.

Miriam Dalli

Energy Minister Miriam Dalli has denied suggestions she was being considered as a replacement for Fearne, calling it “speculation” and saying she has “not even thought about it”. 

She also denied opposition politicians’ claims she would not survive the MEPs’ grilling —part of the process for being considered a commissioner—due to her role in funding Electrogas, a company mired in scandal and subject to an ongoing public inquiry.

She has also lost confidence due to failures of the national grid under her watch, a lack of measures to ensure a repeat of the disaster, accusations of nepotism, and controversy around a new €46 million diesel-fuelled power plant designed to plug ongoing gaps in demand.

Ian Borg

Another potential candidate is Ian Borg, current foreign minister and rotating chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who previously served as parliamentary secretary for the EU presidency and EU funds and minister of transport and infrastructure.

Borg is also not free from scandals. The Times of Malta revealed in 2023 he had personally pressured the director of Transport Malta to pass driving test candidates loyal to him and the PL. In March 2023, a local court also found for the second time that a permit to construct a swimming pool at his property was issued illegally.

(Alice Taylor | Euractiv.com)

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