Malta’s Joseph Muscat thought, on Sunday night, that he was giving the people what they wanted. He was wrong. Battered by a political crisis rooted in the murder of a journalist, the prime minister bowed to public anger, announcing his plan to stand down in January. But for the slain woman’s family, Muscat’s EU counterparts, and – crucially – the maddened Maltese masses, it is not enough. Worried that his continued tenure prevents a truly free investigation into one-time cabinet colleagues, they want him gone now.
For two years, Malta’s political establishment has quaked from the fallout of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. A renowned investigative journalist, Caruana Galizia had exposed corruption at the highest levels of the Valletta government. Among her scoops was the involvement of Muscat’s chief of staff and tourism minister – Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi – in the ‘Panama Papers’ scandal. Both men deny any involvement in the 2017 car-bombing that claimed the reporter’s life – but last week, as allegations mounted, Schembri and Mizzi resigned.
Three men – two brothers and a third individual – have been charged with the killing, but few believe that they were anything more than hired hit-men. The search for the true mastermind brought police aboard a luxury yacht last month, trying to slip from Maltese water at dawn. Its owner, casino magnate Yorgen Fenech, has since been charged with complicity in the killing, which he denies. Caruana Galizia was reportedly looking into his business affairs when she died.
When Fenech went before the courts, he made a shocking accusation. Schembri had conspired in the murder plot, the businessman alleged, requesting immunity from prosecution in return for material evidence. For Muscat, an old school friend of Schembri’s, it was a disastrous development. Even when his former chief of staff was released by police without charge, the prime minister struggled to defend his proximity to those caught up in the case. Some decisions “could have been better made,” he admitted on Sunday, announcing his intention to stand down in the new year.
For Caruana Galizia’s loved ones, it’s a pitiful gesture. A day after Muscat’s declaration, the family launched legal action against the prime minister, demanding he resign immediately and play no further role in the murder probe. “Fenech wasn’t acting alone. The other villains are hiding behind Muscat,” said Mandy Mallia, the slain journalist’s sister, at a raucous demonstration outside government headquarters on Tuesday.
The vitriol of the protesters – some of whom pelted the prime minister with eggs as he arrived – speaks to Muscat’s dizzying fall from grace. Winning two landslide elections in his six-year tenure, he has enjoyed a largely successful premiership outside of the scandal. Malta is Europe’s fastest-growing economy – the island’s GDP leapt 6.8% in 2018 – and has seen significant social reform in recent years.
But the chaotic affair has, in the minds of many, tarnished his reputation beyond recovery. When Schembri was first outed as a beneficiary of secretive Panama shell companies by Caruana Galizia, Muscat defended him. And when Fenech – an alleged associate of Schembri – was revealed to be a suspect in the case, the prime minister still stood by his strategist – even including him in meetings on the investigation.
This apparently laissez-faire approach to alleged wrongdoing is below the prime minister’s position, critics argue. Beseeching Muscat’s MPs to put “national interest” before party loyalty, Opposition Leader Adrian Delia has called on them to “do what [he] didn’t do of his own volition” – immediately withdraw from office.
Delia’s rationale is clear: while Muscat clings to power, can the police probing members of his administration act with absolute liberty? The prime minister is himself free of any alleged connection to the murder – but it’s the principle that counts. For many in the country, the divide between Muscat and those suspected of involvement in the killing is just too narrow to tolerate.
Among EU ranks, there are concerns too. This week, an urgent delegation of MEPs arrived in Malta to examine the island nation’s rule of law. “Not reassured,” was how the mission’s leader described her feelings after meeting with the prime minister and promptly called on him to quit without delay.
For Manfred Weber MEP, a senior member of the group, the apparent lack of political accountability threatened the “entire European project,” he said. A hasty conclusion to the debacle is what the EU wants most. Left unchecked, the culture of impunity that has plagued the Caruana Galizia case could erode the bloc’s rule of law more widely. Free speech, democracy, justice – key pillars of EU doctrine – are all under threat in Malta, observers say.
But Muscat seems unperturbed. He struck a defiant tone on Sunday, saying the affair must not be allowed to “define everything that [Malta] is”. But for those furious citizens out on the streets, not least members of Caruana Galizia’s family, the case is everything to the island nation. Until he’s gone, that cannot change.