Robert Abela

Pm robert abela malta 21022020.jpg
14th Prime Minister of Malta
Assumed office
13 January 2020
PresidentGeorge Vella
DeputyChris Fearne
Preceded byJoseph Muscat
Leader of the Labour Party
Assumed office
12 January 2020
Preceded byJoseph Muscat
Personal details
Born (1977-12-07) 7 December 1977 (age 42)
Sliema, Malta
Political partyLabour
Spouse(s)
Lydia Zerafa
(m. 2008)
Children1
RelativesGeorge Abela (Father)
Margaret Abela (Mother)
EducationUniversity of Malta

Robert Abela (born 7 December 1977)[1] is a Maltese lawyer and politician, currently serving as the 14th prime minister of Malta. A Member of Parliament since 2017, he replaced Joseph Muscat as Leader of the Labour Party following the party's internal leadership election held on 11 January 2020, and was instated as prime minister on 13 January. Abela is the son of George Abela, the eighth president of Malta.

Early life, family and professional career

Born in Sliema in the Northern Harbour District,[2] to George Abela (President of Malta, 2009–2014) and his wife Margaret (née Cauchi),[3][4] Robert Abela grew up with his sister Marija in Għaxaq and Marsaskala in the south of Malta. Their mother, Margaret, worked in the administration of the Old University in Valletta and later managed the family's law firm. Robert attended the Sisters’ School in Santa Luċija and St Francis primary school in Bormla, to then continue secondary school and sixth form at St Aloysius' College.[5]

A football player in his youth, he played in goal for the national youth team.[5] Abela also practised bodybuilding, competing twice in the national championships in the late 1990s.[6][7]

Abela studied law at the University of Malta, where he met his future wife Lydia. He graduated in 2002.[8]

Following his graduation, he worked in the family's Abela Advocates law firm,[5] specializing in industrial and labour law.[9] His law firm's contract with Malta's Planning Authority predates Labour's election in 2013 and has been renewed yearly since. Abela has been criticised for benefiting from direct orders for legal services for public entities,[10] including Enemalta and Transport Malta.[11] In 2018, Robert Abela said that no conflict of interest arose from his acting as legal representative of Air Malta while his father, former President George Abela, was the mediator and chief negotiator in talks with its pilots.[12] After 2013, Abela Advocates held a license (IIP 161) for the sale of Maltese citizenship (Individual Investors Programme), in the name of Robert's wife Lydia.[13] The license was dropped in early 2020 once Robert became Prime Minister.

In 2008, he married Lydia Abela (née Zerafa), who later took the role of secretary of the Labour Party executive committee. They have a daughter, Giorgia Mae, born in 2012.[14]

Politics

Robert Abela became involved in politics while his father George Abela was deputy party leader, supporting the party in the 1996 general election.[5] He claimed that he started off transporting sick people to the polling stations in 1996, and worked behind the scenes for many years in other roles, such as representing the party on current affairs programmes as requested by Joseph Muscat and lately as his legal advisor in Cabinet.[14] He also supported his father in the failed Labour leadership bid against Joseph Muscat in 2008, after Alfred Sant's resignation.[5]

On 25 January 2017, Abela highlighted that a patch of land in his native Qormi was seriously undervalued during the previous Partit Nazzjonalista administration, where contractors paid €0.9 million instead of the full value of €8 million.[15]

Abela was described as appealing to voters with no political ties, as well as the perfect replacement to attract Marie Louise Coleiro Preca's votes in the sixth district of Siggiewi, Luqa and Qormi. He had already been approached; however, he chose his legal profession over politics.[16]

Member of the Parliament of Malta

In June 2017, at the age of 40, he was elected to the Parliament of Malta after his first attempt at contesting the sixth district, including Siggiewi, Luqa and Qormi, was successful.[17] He also served as legal adviser to the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat,[5] which enabled him to attend the meetings of the Council of Ministers.[9] The Opposition claimed that his private consultancy contracts with the Planning Authority and Transport Malta earned him at least €580,000.[11]

In October 2019 Abela stated that more Police are needed on Malta's streets to tackle residents' migration-related concerns.[18]

In his years at the Parliament, Abela was never an outspoken critic of Muscat; in the fallout of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, he remarked that he would have "acted earlier" to remove minister Konrad Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri from their posts if he were leader.[14]

2020 Labour leadership race

Following the announcement of Joseph Muscat's upcoming resignation due to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the ensuing protests, deputy prime minister Chris Fearne was considered the front-runner to replace Muscat as leader of the party and Prime Minister, and other hopefuls (including Ian Borg and Miriam Dalli) were reportedly pressured not to run in order to allow a quick transition by Christmas 2019 with the formality of a vote by party members for a single candidate.[14] Robert Abela remarked that he did not want to be a part of any "diabolical pact", and presented his candidacy as an alternative to Chris Fearne.[19][20][21] However, according to James Debono, Abela was soon recognised as the "continuity" candidate instead of Fearne, emphasizing stability, unity and normality, as opposed to the bolder changes advocated by Fearne.[22]

Abela's leadership campaign was focused on party members and aimed at striking a chord with the traditional Labour themes (social housing, free medicines for the elderly and better employment conditions for blue-collar workers)[9][23] while distancing himself from the coziness of Muscat with big business.[14] He also called for a crack-down on cheap labour migrant workers, who he accused of repressing local salaries, by proposing that employers be allowed to hire foreigners only if able to pay them fully on the books and while respecting work condition regulations.[24] He also guaranteed the continuation of Malta's controversial citizenship-by-investment programme.[23]

Abela, a backbencher with no ministerial experience, presented himself as a candidate of continuity, pledging to maintain the same cabinet as Muscat's, as well as the same staff at the powerful Office of the Prime Minister, in opposition to Chris Fearne, whose campaign for a clean slate at Castille created apprehension among insiders.[14]

Abela was openly critical of the 2019 Malta political crisis surrounding the Daphne Caruana Galizia carbombing.[25] In fact, on 28 November 2019, he claimed that the Labour Party would need deep rooted changes rather than superficial ones.[26] Abela also claimed that the only purpose of the 2019 Maltese protests was provocation.[27]

Abela also stated that his family law firm - headed by his wife - should retain the right to bid for public tenders, should he take up office.[10] Following controversies,[28] he later backtracked and committed not to seek public contracts for his family law firm.[12]

His campaign was criticised for not accepting any interviews from the independent press, but only relying on Labour-friendly media outlets.[29]

Leader of Labour Party and Prime Minister

At the internal party elections on 12 January 2020, Abela obtained 9,342 votes against 6,798 for Chris Fearne. Over 92% of MLP members cast their vote in party clubs across the country.[14] Abela was thus proclaimed new leader of the Labour Party.

The following day Joseph Muscat resigned from the post of Prime Minister. President George Vella accepted Muscat's resignation and appointed Abela as new Prime Minister of Malta.[30] His first official appointment was that of Clyde Caruana as his Head of Secretariat.[31][32]

Honours

National honours