What is a hegemony? In politics, this refers to a relatively stable force which is characterised by a unity of different parts. Here, power is durable and enjoys wide consent, especially as its leadership manages to unite different values, interests and identities.
But hegemonic power is not eternal. It can implode and be threatened by counter-hegemonic forces. Essentially, the democratic game can be seen as a struggle of different political forces, some of which become hegemonic.
The Nationalist Party achieved this status after its 1987 electoral victory, when it became the ‘natural party of government’. This era is part of Malta’s past and we are now experiencing a Labour hegemony.
When Alfred Sant became Labour’s leader in 1992, he tried to create a modernised and inclusive alternative to the PN. He purged violent elements from Labour and attempted to build a meritocratic government. Labour won the 1996 general election but some ill-timed decisions and Mintoff’s exploitation of the logic of numbers led to its collapse after 22 months.
When Joseph Muscat was elected Labour leader in 2008 he opened the doors of the party to all those ready to work with it, including Labourites who were not in Sant’s good books. Muscat adopted a populistic ‘moderate and progressive’ strategy and his charisma was increasing steadily.
In 2010, I wrote that such politics without adversaries has good electoral prospects but I also expressed doubt on its impacts and durability. Well, the latter did not quite happen: to date, Labour has won eight consecutive local, European and national victories between 2009 and 2017 with its results varying between 53.4 and 56.6 per cent.
Some might argue that Labour is retaining Malta’s economic status quo, to the benefit of big business, but this reductive argument does not fully explain why this party has been winning consistently.
Under Muscat, the party retained its base of core voters including a good chunk of the working class vote. But its current hegemonic formation also includes supporters of the current economic feel-good factor, those who prioritise the party’s liberal turn, beneficiaries of Labour’s patronage and micro-targeting approaches and people put off by the PN.
Muscat’s great communication skills and the party’s direct and indirect media tactics bond the different parts together and have so far earned him more trust than all other political leaders in the past decade.
Besides, the increased centralisation of powers from local councils and authorities to ministers give the party a greater role to play in managing power.
This is also being accompanied by an increasingly red civil service and policies such as the sale of passports and over-reliance on construction and its spin-offs. As far as the former goes, I wonder whether all revenues are accounted for and whether they help finance Labour’s political strategy.
This is not to say that Labour did not experience its own implosions. Indeed, scientific polls show that Labour did lose votes to the Nationalist Party in the 2017 election. But the opposite happened too, thus resulting in Labour’s massive victory a few weeks ago.
When will Labour’s hegemony come to an end? This is difficult to say. Would anyone have imagined that Labour would have created such an efficient electoral machine after its long years in Opposition? The future always lasts a long time and it is never written in advance.
And this means that the PN can create a strong counter hegemonic force. Maybe it can outdo Labour by turning the latter’s strategy against itself.
The PN can aim for a wide and broad coalition that gels within the party’s main goals. These should not be straitjacketed under one reductive ideology but should be based on common values that fit within a broad umbrella.
The PN can build upon its good governance pledge and coalition approach by ensuring that its electoral strategy is grounded in Malta’s plural realities.
Thus, it should also focus on bread and butter concerns, micro-tactics and effective communication. Internally, the party should keep the doors open to newcomers while ensuring that loyalists feel a sense of belonging.
In my post-election reflection published in this newspaper last week, I suggested that the Nationalist Party calmly takes its time to choose a new leader. I also suggested that in the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership.
As things stand it seems that there is no clear contender for the post. It would be beneficial to act wisely and slowly to ensure that a proper, open and deliberative leadership contest takes place. Acting rash can give an instant leader, but can have longer-term repercussions.
The current Nationalist leadership may decide otherwise and may have its good reasons to do so. Should this be the case, I still urge the party to conduct a comprehensive brainstorming exercise to identify the key challenges, opportunities and risks.
The PN should also conduct constant empirical and grounded social-scientific research on demographic trends, lifestyle concerns, aspirations, values and situations of people in Malta. Such research should be ongoing and should involve both quantitative and qualitative methods, from the analysis of big data to the ethnographic interpretation of micro-realities.
The party should also take heed of the various arguments being made of what type of leadership is required in Malta’s current context.
For example, one argument is that the new leader should be an excellent communicator, especially when one considers that Joseph Muscat is capable of turning risks into opportunities through his rhetorical skills. I suggest that Muscat’s declaration that he will not contest in the upcoming general election should also be interpreted within his skill set.
Another argument is that the new leader should be streetwise. Indeed, many voters may not be concerned with abstract theory, but may have more immediate concerns beyond the radars of party strategists. A key challenge here would be how to reconcile such concerns with the common good, with realistic policy and with electability. They often can and should be reconciled, but sometimes, red lines have to be drawn. Again, excellent communication is key.
Some commentators have also discussed the ideological orientation of the PN. I find this debate very interesting. My interpretation in this regard is that both the Nationalist and Labour parties are umbrella parties which are broader than the respective classic textbook definitions of Christian democracy and social democracy.
Indeed, both parties have internal spans across the centre-left and centre-right. They also both have their own traditions, loyalists, factions and other characteristics which go beyond political ideology and which are better interpreted within Maltese social, cultural and economic factors.
The parties sometimes may have peculiarities which may seem odd to observers from other contexts. For example certain liberals may feel more comfortable in the PN and certain conservatives may feel more comfortable in the Labour Party, and vice-versa. This may have to do with historic events for example in the 1960s and 1980s and also with more recent historic events such as Malta’s EU accession, the introduction of divorce, civil liberties and governance issues. This also has to do with political capital of respective party leaderships.
But differences may also have to do with certain dispositions within the respective parties. For example, Labour has inherited an anti-colonial nationalism and top-down centralism while the Nationalist Party is usually more open to a Europeanist legacy of deliberation and self-criticism. Then again, Labour is more in synch with certain cultures in Malta today.
It is therefore imperative that the new leader of the PN reconciles the various factions and traditions within it. And this should also mean that the leadership team as a whole reflects such diversity. A leader is only as good as the team around her or him.
Identity gives a sense of belonging to a party’s members and constituents. But identity itself is never a monolith, unless one opts for the absolutist road. It is the common denominator among diversity that gels a party together.
A politically relevant leadership should therefore be principled but flexible, reaching out to aspirations of plural identities of consumers, citizens, families, groups, categories and classes. Democratic reconciliation is key.