Voters who are attracted to smaller parties may face difficult choices in Maltese general elections. Should they vote for a small party which reflects their beliefs, or should they vote for one of the two large parties?
Voting for the former will most probably not result in parliamentary election. It can also assist the large party which is furthest from one’s beliefs. And voting for a large party can help it win the election but can eventually result in disappointment if it betrays promises close to the voter’s heart.
Examples of the latter include Labour’s promises of meritocracy and good governance before the 2013 election. Very few analytical voters would dispute that Labour has failed miserably in this regard.
On the other hand, Labour’s promises to certain lobbies and interest groups have borne fruit. These cross ideological lines and include the hunting lobby, big business, the construction industry and the LGBTIQ movement among others.
In many instances, Labour has also capitalised on the sectarianism and lack of cross-interest alliances in Maltese civil society. For example, Malta’s LGBTIQ movement has various progressive aims and has impressively constructed a united front on related issues. But the same movement has not actively supported other progressive causes in Malta, such as environmentalism and anti-poverty.
Thus, voters who may have beliefs which are closer to the Green Party may have voted Labour in 2013 as they knew that their aspirations were more likely to be achieved this way. Today, some are rather satisfied with Labour’s reforms in related areas such as civil rights and social policy. But others are terribly disappointed when they consider the overall style of Labour governance.
The latter may consequently form part of the sizeable minority of voters who are expressing lack of trust towards both major political parties. Whether they will abstain from voting, invalidate their vote, vote for a small party or end up voting for a large party can never be fully captured in advance by surveys.
Perhaps a cross-party, pre-electoral coalition – with different party candidates on the same list – may offer the best of both worlds if formulated properly. It would comprise smaller parties who are closer to such voters’ beliefs, and it would also dispel the ‘wasted vote’ threat.
And this takes me to a very important consideration for Malta today: equivalence.
Should the Labour and Nationalist parties be seen as equivalent? Do their respective mass party structures make them identical? Or are there key differences between them?
Here I am not only referring to ideology and issue proposals. Indeed, one party may be more to the left than the other on certain issues, and less liberal on others.
What I am referring to is style of governance. Particularly when it comes to controversial decisions, allegations of corruption, long-term societal implications and so forth.
Voters may not cite governance as the most important issue in surveys, yet its implications can be universally applicable across various sectors. For example, corruption can have negative implications in economic and environmental terms.
Labour is playing a cynical yet effective game in this regard. Whenever the government is in trouble on matters such as corruption, its media strategists and allies use trump cards by blowing up comparatively minor issues that embarrass the Nationalist Party.
The Labour media strategy thus aims to increase disillusion with the entire political system, so that the voters Labour risks losing do not vote blue. Small parties and civil society are thus seen as useful bait by Labour and its allies: small party criticism and differences with the PN are amplified, but talk which does not sound good to Labour may be obscured or distorted.
The hard truth remains, however, that as things stand, the only viable hope to remove the oligarchy which is orchestrating Malta’s bad governance is to unite parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles into a common will. Here, the bigger picture would come before sectarianism and cannibalisation.
Alternatively one can hope for Malta’s political system to implode and face a radical rupture. But this can never be predicted. Nor can its outcomes in terms of political victors and governance.
Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist of global influence is comparing Trump’s presidency to an experiment on whether the United States “is a nation of laws or a nation of men”. This is because US democracy, with all its limitations, has a resilient system of constitutional checks and balances against the excessive concentration of executive power.
On the other hand, Donald Trump does not seem very much concerned with the legitimacy of established institutions such as official statistics, the free press and the judiciary.
Such institutions are what differentiate liberal democracies from illiberal ones. The former is based on majority rule but equally values the rights of the individual and of minorities. Here, no majority rule can take away rights such as free speech or fair hearings at court. Multi-levels of power ranging from central government to local councils and from the judiciary to the public service are supposed to balance each other out.
Thus, democracy is safeguarded from the dangers of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The Western world is usually seen as the best example of liberal democracy. Hence the current anxiety caused by Trump’s antics.
On the other hand, illiberal democracy is based on majority rule, full stop. Two current examples include Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were both elected to their positions in multi-party elections, and both have popular support. Yet, checks and balances are largely lacking. Independent journalists, critical academics and civil society do not enjoy the freedoms which exist in many western societies.
Hannah Arendt, a great political thinker during the mid-20th century said that temptations to accumulate power and wealth may be found in all political systems. But liberal democracies have checks and balances which act against such excesses. And if these are weakened or destroyed, society may slip towards authoritarian or totalitarian rule.
Hence, it is the duty of every self-respecting democrat to be wary of political maneuvers which disregard checks and balances.
Which takes us to Malta.
From a legal perspective, checks and balances exist in Malta, as the country conforms to the basic prerequisites required by EU member states.
Yet, politics and policy-making is not simply about transposing legislation, important as this is. The implementation and improvement of legislation is equally important. The state should ensure that institutions are adequately equipped to ensure that democracy functions properly.
The behavior of Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is acting in bad faith in this regard. There are too many examples of bad governance. To add insult to injury, various key exponents of the government speak and act shamelessly. Chris Cardona’s garnishee order against Daphne Caruana Galizia is the latest of such examples.
Like the various Trumps and Erdogans, the Prime Minister and a good number of Cabinet ministers say that they have the support of the majority and therefore they decide, full stop.
They ignore the advice of the National Audit Office, one of Malta’s most upright institutions. They dodge parliamentary questions and the press. When they publish public contracts, they rub off key information. They are eroding people’s trust in the police force and state authorities. Instead of resigning due to scandals such as Panama Papers, they remain anchored in their positions and kill all credibility when discussing basic issues such as electricity power cuts. They think that people are not concerned about corruption.
Well, let’s face it, when a Maltese civil society protest was held last year on the Panama Papers scandal, there weren’t the huge crowds which demonstrated in the various Icelands and Romanias. The former forced the Prime Minister to resign due to his involvement in Panama Papers, the latter has forced the government to withdraw legislation which institutionalises corruption.
But 400 people did turn up in Malta, which, by our standards, is quite high - higher than most other civil society demonstrations organised in Malta bar the 4,000-strong save Żonqor one in 2015.
And it could be the case that Malta has a silent section of voters who won’t go out to protest but will judge the government on election day. Indeed, Muscat’s huge victory in 2013 may prove to be pyrrhic one.