The foundations of an authoritarian state are laid down with the disruption of rule-of-law so as to allow unchecked authority by the political centre. We have already gone through this stage under Joseph Muscat’s administration. During the political crisis of 2019, Malta faced a crossroads: to keep everything as it was or to rebuild the foundations of the rule of law. Robert Abela went on to win the leadership race of the Labour Party and then Prime Minister with the explicit aim to keep things as they were.
An authoritarian state isn’t necessarily the same as a dictatorship although one may eventually lead to another. Lately, cases of authoritarian democracies have also been described as “illiberal democracies” such as Hungary or Turkey for example. Both Hungary and Turkey have democratically-elected governments which behave in an authoritarian way. Turkey’s democracy took a slippery slope to authoritarianism which is now developing into an outright dictatorship while in Hungary with many political opponents and dissidents in jail while Viktor Orban has consolidated his power gradually by capturing all of the state’s institutions including the courts. Robert Abela is in a very similar position to Orban with most of the state’s institutions under his direct control. The courts of law have remained mostly impartial although some of its members like Magistrate Nadine Lia are openly serving Joseph Muscat’s and Labour’s interests. The struggle of civil society is very clear in its fight to prevent Labour and Robert Abela from taking even more control over state institutions.
Robert Abela’s deal with Joseph Muscat during the leadership race was to protect him from criminal investigations, however, this task requires dysfunctional institutions. Different governments had conveniently kept the police force ineffective to fight financial and white-collar crime and the situation today remains the same. The police force is intentionally disabled and ineffective to fight crime in politics and current police commissioner, Angelo Gafa has so far served Labour’s interests exceptionally well by keeping Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri out of jail: none of them have even been prosecuted for their corruption and attempted money laundering with regards to the Electrogas deal through their Panama shell-companies. The political conspiracy to interfere in the murder investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia and cover it up has also been conveniently forgotten by the authorities. So far, Robert Abela seems to have held up his end of the bargain with Joseph Muscat while Labour MPs make no secret of their intentions to cover up the Electrogas scandal during hearings at the Public Accounts Committee.
Abela along with his top officials and cabinet ministers genuinely believe that the majority of the people are not interested in seeing Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri face justice for their political corruption, let alone seeing Muscat investigated, so rule of law is no longer an issue. The problem with this myopic view is that the willing and intended dysfunction of state institutions is not only resulting in impunity for Joseph Muscat and friends, but its effects are wide and far-reaching. and Abela and his friends will never empathize or feel sorry for Daphne’s family, but what they fail to see is that the collapse of rule of law is also affecting many ordinary people including their own constituent base. The latest victim of widespread impunity and rampant corruption is Jean Paul Sofia, a construction worker who was working on an illegal construction site developed by a government official and an associate who share a criminal past together. And like other victims, Jean Paul Sofia and his family will hardly have any justice as the system is rigged against them.
After taking over state institutions the most important step for an authoritarian would be to monopolise media and information and Labour is doing this successfully by using government funds to sponsor fake media outlets which are actually Labour propaganda outlets. Meanwhile, Robert Abela is also struggling against to press to impose on it a series of new reforms which would curtail its activities. The fight for freedom of speech is going to be very grueling as Labour will not let go of its attempt to completely take over the information space. As Robert and his ministers refuse to give interviews and reply to questions from the press they reek of desperation to shut down any noise which is challenging their fake narratives. The government is in a constant state of covering-up information on its deals and activities while making extensive use of public funds to promote the government’s ridiculous campaigns such as Miriam Dalli’s “Green Malta” or whatever.
Most of the characteristics of benign authoritarianism are there and Labour is exploiting and leveraging them. It is only civil society and the free press that currently stands between Labour and an unadulterated breed of Mediterranean authoritarianism.