Sociologist from Malta

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A 'professional' political class

The Sunday Times, Sunday, 27th September 2009

Kurt Sansone

Will the majority of the politicians of tomorrow also come from the legal and medical professions?

Lawrence Gonzi is the seventh prime minister to have practised law, which should come as no surprise given the number of lawyers who have dominated Malta's part-time parliament.

More than half Malta's prime ministers since 1921 have been lawyers and a third of parliamentarians today are members of the profession.

The number of lawyer MPs on both sides of the House is practically the same, dispelling any notion of class difference when it comes to parliamentary representation.

Indeed, the traditionally working class Labour Party has 12 lawyers and notaries within its ranks while the Nationalist Party has one less.

The Sunday Times examined the background of the 69 MPs and found that the three traditional professional classes dominate.

Lawyers (including notaries), architects and doctors (including dentists) make up 64 per cent of all MPs. The Labour Party can count 20 parliamentarians from the professional classes on its side while the PN can boast 24.

According to an analysis of 5,000 international politicians conducted by The Economist earlier this year, almost 20 per cent came from the legal profession. In this respect, Malta is no exception.

But why is the presence of people from professional classes so prevalent in parliament?

Former Nationalist Party general secretary Joe Saliba said it was all about having direct contact with people, so common with doctors and lawyers.

"I can understand the popularity of doctors because their job consists of a strong social element, which makes them gravitate towards politics. Lawyers I can also understand because parliament is about making laws and the nature of the profession is political. But I cannot understand why architects are popular," Mr Saliba said.

A district-based electoral system gives candidates with good contacts in various communities a head start over others. According to former Labour general secretary Jimmy Magro, most professionals benefit from having offices in different towns and villages.

This enables them to canvas politically while still conducting their professional work, a sort of twinning between career and politics he said, insisting they also enjoy credibility in people's eyes.

However, sociologist Michael Briguglio said that people within the professional classes had replaced parish priests as the centre of knowledge and power in villages.

Mr Briguglio, an assistant lecturer at the University of Malta's Sociology Department, said lawyers, doctors and architects wielded power in key areas of social life.

"When such people become politicians they can make use of patronage... An electoral system based on districts enhances this relationship of power," he said.

Less pronounced is the presence of businessmen in parliament, contrary to the worldwide analysis conducted by The Economist in which business came second to law.

Only Edwin Vassallo on the PN side and Chris Agius on the PL side are self-employed retailers, while Robert Arrigo is a prominent entrepreneur in the tourism sector.

Although most prominent businessmen have known political affiliations, few have ventured into the field. There have been the odd examples but these were confined to local elections and only for a period of time.

Construction magnates Nazzareno Vassallo and Angelo Xuereb, hotelier Michael Zammit Tabona and importer Joe Caruana Curran were among a handful of businessmen elected to serve on local councils.

But Parliament does not seem to be a natural extension of a businessman's career.

"A good businessman does not necessarily make a good politician. Money can buy power but it is not always sufficient," argued Mr Briguglio. A successful politician, he said, required other traits such as charisma and knowledge of the way politics work.

Canvassing while managing a company or running a shop is not something most businessmen have time for, according to Mr Magro.

"Apart from the fear of losing clients, businessmen generally view politics as a complication they can do without," the former PL general secretary said.

Notable by their absence among MPs are trade unionists, especially on the opposition benches, despite the long-standing affinity between Labour and the General Workers' Union.

This does not surprise Mr Briguglio, since individual trade unionists have their own constituencies (unionised workers) and rewards for being elected in their respective structures.

Besides, he said, the affinity of major trade unions with political parties means their voice may already be strong enough without the need to have parliamentary candidates.

"However, I feel that such influence might be dwindling given the rise of neo-liberal economic tendencies in both major political parties," he said.

An analysis conducted by this newspaper shows that 78 per cent of MPs fall with the AB category, which groups together people in higher and intermediate managerial, administrative and professional posts.

Another 17 per cent fall within the C1 category, which is composed of those who occupy supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional posts.

The rest, a meagre five per cent, are either skilled manual workers or pensioners.

This disparity between socio-economic backgrounds is the same on both sides of parliament and, according to Mr Briguglio, reflects the "deeper structural inequalities within Maltese society".

The PN, the PL and the Church may be the strongest political structures, but underlying them is a capitalist economic structure with its own characteristics, he said, adding that contesting elections costs money.

"It is difficult to be a factory worker and have the necessary resources to make promises and be effective in the electoral market. This also counts for people from other categories such as lecturers, teachers and middle-management civil servants and for small political parties," he said.

Drawing on personal experience in the political field with Alternattiva Demokratika, Mr Briguglio said even though these disadvantaged groups could make use of "social networking" to find their way in the political system, this was often overpowered by the social networking of stronger groups.

Mr Saliba, however, insisted he still had to be convinced that money alone could propel a candidate into parliament, saying that people voted on emotive matters such as whether they liked the candidate or not.

"Home visits - not leaflets - are the best form of advertising for candidates... and they do not cost money. I don't exclude money is important but we have had cases where people did not spend money and still got elected," Mr Saliba said.

His former counterpart in the Labour Party, however, has another explanation as to why parliament is heavily skewed in favour of the professional classes.

"We cannot ignore the provisions of the civil service, which prevent people from certain grades upwards from contesting elections," Mr Magro said.

The public service has just over 28 per cent of the country's workforce, making it a major employer.

Recalling the case of former PL candidate Frank Fabri, who renounced his 2008 candidature after being promoted to college principal by the Education Department, Mr Magro insisted said the civil service limited the participation of a large swath of people who could make a contribution to politics.

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