Crisis, Opportunity

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Maltese Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader Robert Abela recently handed out tax refund checks as large as $150 to 250,000 workers in his country, the bloc’s smallest member. Abela said the checks would probably be the last voters would see if his opponents in the Nationalist Party won office in a general election on March 26.

On the campaign trail touting how Malta now enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in history, he claimed the Nationalists would drop subsidies for some rental leases, immediately rendering 10,000 families homeless, reported Television Malta, a public broadcasting service.

He also announced he would extend pandemic wage supplements to help businesses handle Covid-19-related problems through April. As wrote, the subsidy gave the worst-hit businesses almost $1,000 a month per employee.

This spending spree has been a feature in recent years under Abela’s center-left Labour government even as opponents say the prime minister has been engaging in vulgar electioneering. Independent candidate Arnold Cassola filed a challenge with Malta’s Electoral Commission recently, saying the tax refunds and subsidies were wrongly distributed. And former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech, a Nationalist Party member, said the handouts were a vote-buying exercise. “This is no tax refund,” Fenech told Malta Today. “Many recipients have not even paid tax, let alone deserve a refund.”

Meanwhile, other parties running candidates are railing against Labour’s pandemic measure, such as one that hails from the evangelical community known as the River of Love with an anti-Covid vaccine, anti-abortion stance, according to Malta Today. In stark contrast is Volt Malta, which wants to safeguard sex workers, decriminalize drug use, introduce euthanasia and establish an art-focused commune.

But despite corruption scandals, grumbling over roads and other issues, the election will likely result in Abela’s party getting a third five-year term because of bread-and-butter concerns, said Reuters. The country, a popular tourist destination, took a sharp economic hit during the Covid-19 pandemic and those subsidies helped. Now, the economy of the Mediterranean island country is poised to grow six percent this year, the best rise in the EU. That growth has allowed Abela to project optimism about the future – saying that Malta can now move forward with the pandemic in the rearview mirror – that is clearly part of his appeal, noted Politico.

Still, Abela’s forecast victory is a remarkable feat given how he became premier amid scandal. As Reuters explained, Abela assumed office when former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat resigned in 2020 after his close friend, businessman Yorgen Fenech, was accused of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia almost five years ago.

“Malta’s political elite is still reeling from revelations in late 2019 that top government officials were involved in both the murder plot of Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in 2017 and the coverup,” wrote Crux.

A 2021 government investigation also held itself responsible for the assassination of Galizia by creating an atmosphere of impunity and failed to protect journalists, wrote the Times of Malta.

Meanwhile, police this year raided Muscat’s home in yet another corruption probe involving payments he took from a Swiss company related to the management of three Maltese hospitals, reported Politico. Muscat says the payments were legitimate consulting income.

Abela has not been untouched by the stench of scandal. He was involved in a controversy in 2018 related to his involvement in a real estate transaction that may have been a tax-avoidance scheme, the Associated Press reported. He has called such stories “political spin.”

Regardless, things are looking up for Malta after years of tough times. However, the war in Ukraine could put a damper on the economic front. But Abela is not likely to let that get in his way. That’s because he’s the perfect example of a European frontman taking to heart Winston Churchill‘s admonition: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

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