Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Forza Nazzjonali

Image result for forza nazzjonali

On June 3, I will vote for ­Forza Nazzjonali for a simple reason. I want to live in a normal country. Like many other citizens, I am tired of Malta’s deficit in governance. And Joseph Muscat’s government has been tainted with corruption and scandals from the first days of his premiership.
In the past four years, Muscat adopted a cavalier attitude with taxpayer money. He bailed out Café Premier and parcelled out public property in dubious ways. Scandals involving the latter include Australia Hall, Żonqor and Gaffarena. Not to mention that one of Muscat’s first decisions as prime minister was to rent his own car to himself.
His government also locked the country in major contracts with questionable credentials. These include the costly energy contract which will make Malta dependent on Azerbaijani energy for the next 18 years and the mysterious health privatisation deal with a company that has no experience in healthcare.
In addition, Muscat’s gang of four created the sale of passports scheme though it did not feature in Labour’s grand manifesto in 2013. It was implemented as one of the government’s flagships, with Muscat assuming the role of salesman. Given its dubious credentials, lack of transparency and lack of accountability, it was not surprising to read about kickbacks.
In the meantime, while Malta’s image is being associated with corruption, Muscat seems to care only for his gang. He did not remove Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri when the Panama Papers scandal erupted. And the only plausible reason why he called a snap election one year before it was due was to save his skin.
So how come Muscat was not purged from his party? I think that he banked on popular support in two ways. First by exploiting traditionally-loyal Labour supporters, and second by buying people’s support. The former was a dishonest hijacking of people who were tired of being in opposition. The latter was carried out through the positions-of-trust industry and through an ‘anything goes’ approach. Enforcement, permit-granting and regulations were used as partisan tools rather than civic guarantors.
The Planning Authority, the police and other state institutions generally acted to implement this strategy. Such patronage renders people dependent on ministers’ whims, rather than active citizens with rights and responsibilities. Do we want more of this in the next five years? A pro-Muscat argument would say that despite such shortcomings, Malta’s economy flourished under Muscat. This argument could easily be rebutted in various ways.
First, Malta’s economy was always relatively stable under previous Nationalist governments, even when global turbulence was much greater than it is today.  In a way, Muscat’s government reaped the fruit that was created through the economic infrastructure that was already in place.
Second, Malta’s international reputation is going downhill due to the scandals involving Muscat’s gang of four. This can have terrible economic consequences, especially when considering that as a small island Malta is highly dependent on exports and the global economic framework.
Third, prospective prime minister Simon Busuttil has promised to retain the sustainable elements of Malta’s economy and develop new sectors such as the digital economy, the internet of things and the social economy.
Busuttil is also promising major infrastructural projects such as the development of a metro and progressive social policy.
And fourth, Busuttil is promising to clean up Malta’s image if he is elected prime minister. By installing confidence and trust in institutions such as the police, the Financial Services Authority, Parliament and the Attorney General, Malta will be sending a message that it wants its resilience to be based on good governance.
Indeed, good governance provides the basic political infrastructure for sustainable policy-making in economic, social and environmental matters. And I found that Forza Nazzjonali means business in this regard. From my own experience in this electoral campaign, I can testify that Busuttil uses the power of persuasion to show that Malta deserves a better form of governance.
Forza Nazzjonali has opened its arms to people who come from different backgrounds but who share a common dream: that of living in a normal country.  Let us make it happen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Is Joseph Muscat a strong leader?

Joseph Muscat has been present in my political and sociological experiences for the past 20 years or so.
This goes back to the run-up to the 1996 general election. Prospective prime minister Alfred Sant was depicted as the moderniser of Malta.  Assisted by Labour intellectuals such as Mario Vella, Evarist Bartolo and Alfred Mifsud, Sant ridded Labour of its violent elements and embraced polices and strategies which were previously anathema.
Labour opened up to the middle class and embraced liberal market economics.  Other aspects of Labour’s tradition were retained. These included the top-down culture of strong party leadership and the anti-colonial heritage in foreign policy.
New Labour duly won the election but it imploded after 22 months, largely due to the conflict between Sant and Labour’s old patriarch Dom Mintoff.
At the time Muscat was a young Labour activist. Before the 1996 elections, he wrote a charming book on Alfred Sant. After the 1998 general elections, Muscat’s stature kept growing within Labour, and he remained very close to the Sant ‘modernising’ intellectual circle referred to above. Like future PN leader Simon Busuttil, Muscat was a positive performer as a European parliamentarian.
When Labour lost yet another election in 2008, Muscat announced his candidature for the post of leader. During his campaign, I met him at his Malta office. It was a friendly meeting, and he asked me if greens would be interested in joining Labour and coordinating some form of environmental section. I was flattered by his offer, and I thought it was interesting, but I refused.
Some greens did eventually join Labour though. Both Muscat and myself eventually became respective party leaders. The only times we met at this time was during party leader debates in the run-up to the 2013 general election. I could not help notice his growing stature as a confident and charismatic leader, whose only way was up.
In the meantime, in separate writings, I noted the ‘progressive and moderate’ articulation of the party’s strategy. I said that such a politics without adversaries might win elections but could eventually lead to political implosion due to non-reconcilable interests.
Muscat’s Labour won the election in 2013. His performance was massive. His aura of invincibility was repeated in the European Parliament elections a year later.
But then cracks started to appear. First it was the Manuel Mallia incident. Then it was Michael Falzon. Both of them lost their positions, but were still coopted within Labour’s governing structure. Anġlu Farrugia had experienced something similar when he was removed from deputy leader for a remark he made before the 2013 general election, only to find himself as speaker in the subsequent parliamentary formation.
Muscat seemed strong with such Labour stalwarts. And he also cemented the loyalty of others in the party through extra-paid duties for parliamentarians and various Tagħna Lkoll exponents.
Cracks grew larger when Muscat announced the development of a private University on Żonqor ODZ land. This resulted in the largest civil society protest ever, influencing Muscat to alter his announced plans.  A sort of win-win, if you like.
As Labour’s governance was tainted by constant corrupt practices, parliamentarian Marlene Farrugia distanced herself from Labour, eventually resulting in her role in the Forza Nazzjonali electoral coalition. Labour’s whip Godfrey Farrugia recently followed suit.
When the Panama Papers scandal broke out, Muscat’s image of strength started to be in serious doubt. He could have dismissed Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, but he did the opposite. A series of unintended consequences emerged, and he seemed less in control.
Eventually, Muscat contradicted what he had said some weeks earlier and called an early election, despite having a massive parliamentary majority (unlike Sant in 1998). He also refused to discuss Panama Papers with the European Parliament.
Muscat today retains his charisma and strength as party leader, but he has also become a parody of his former self.
Even if he wins the election (which is in itself doubtful), he may have only postponed implosion.