The first few weeks of 2021 do not bode well at all for Malta’s daunting challenge to stop its downward trajectory and start restoring its reputation on the international scene. This sentiment emerged from the verdicts emanated by two reputable organisations in their respective annual reports on the state of two key indicators – corruption and democracy.

It transpires that in 2020 Malta’s score in the Corruption Perception Index dropped to an all-time low, well below the average of Western European countries. Meanwhile, its performance in the Democracy Index issued by the Economist Intelligence Unit continued to deteriorate sliding four places down to 30 – an all-time low since 2006.

2020 was supposed to herald the start of a new beginning following the political turmoil which resulted in the resignation of Joseph Muscat from prime minister. In view of this the question beckons: Why is the country still intrinsically embroiled in corruption, despite efforts undertaken last year to start addressing concerns flagged by the rule of law experts of the Council of Europe (Venice Commission)?

A key issue which is yet to be tackled is the criminal justice system. Many a time, prominent people have been arrested in connection with very serious corruption or money laundering allegations only to be released a few hours later. Moreover, even when arraignments happen, criminal proceedings take an eternity. The average length of first-instance money laundering proceedings is over 2,000 days or more than five years. To date no arraignments or charges have been issued on politically exposed persons with respect to the Panama Papers revelations and major scandals like the Electrogas Power Station deal or the Montenegro windfarm project.  On the other hand, cases which pale in comparison, such as people exchanging cheques for a meagre €3 commission have been paraded on the media as if they were top international suspects. Though a new police commissioner was installed last year, public perception on enforcement in Malta remains that institutions are strong with the weak and weak with the strong.

Last year the government made an effort to reform the judiciary, whereby the government no longer holds any discretion in the appointment of magistrates and judges. While this move was lauded, comments by Prime Minister Robert Abela on the public inquiry into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia raised serious questions. Abela’s ultimatum for the inquiry board to wrap up the case by the end of last year and his remarks that proceedings in this inquiry – which exposed serious shortcomings at the highest echelons of power – were going beyond the terms of reference, were interpreted as an attack on the inquiry board itself.

In its report The Economist noted that last year Malta had the unenviable record of holding on to its status as a “flawed democracy”. The latter term is used to describe countries who have free and fair elections, where basic civil liberties are respected but exhibit certain problems (such as infringements on media freedom).  Flawed democracies like Malta have significant weaknesses with respect to governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation. Malta is at a crossroad – enacting reforms alone is not enough. More needs to be done to win over its critics, particularly those who look at Malta with a degree of suspicion.  Government needs to get its act together to convey a genuine sense of commitment that it really wants to improve the situation. The clock, however, is ticking as the country approaches ever close to the Moneyval verdict and the start of infringement proceedings on its cash-for-passport scheme.  This time next year it