Sociologist from Malta

Friday, February 03, 2012

The surreal election

Michael Briguglio

The Times, Friday, February 3, 2012

The political situation has been described as being surreal by many of those active in the field. Indeed, we all seem to be going round in circles, yet, we all seem to know that an election will soon take place.

Last Thursday, when the parliamentary no-confidence vote took place, I experienced surrealism first hand. Driving on the way to the PBS studios, where I was invited to participate as chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika in a live TVAM debate with the Nationalist Party’s Paula Mifsud Bonnici and the Labour Party’s Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, I was hearing Joseph Muscat on the radio. Alone in my car, I knew that practically all Malta was hearing the same thing.

By 11.50 a.m. we were sitting down, all in anticipation of the 12 o’clock vote. Just as we all sensed an election round the corner, we all seemed to predict that Franco Debono would abstain and plunge the country into more political instability.

By five to noon, TVAM host Pierre Portelli was on air, warming up the audience for the vote. Suddenly… blackout! We were in pitch darkness. The paradox of being connected to all Malta, yet being isolated from everybody at the same time, returned. We were in pitch darkness as everyone, from those in the studio to those on Facebook, were asking what was happening. Anti-climax galore!

The solitary Dr Debono seemed to have done it again. He might have compared TVM to its counterpart in the 1980s for other reasons but there we were, subjected to a power cut, which was quite a common event back in the days of Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.

Someone then informed me that a contractor had hit a cable, thus causing the blackout on the radio and airwaves. A contractor! As if we needed reminding that the PNPL duopoly is subservient to the interests of the building industry, we now had a contractor who, single-handedly, like Dr Debono, put the country into a surreal situation.

Dr Debono was addressing the nation, alone, yet, hardly anyone could hear him now. But did it matter? Abstention was in the air.

After a while, electricity was restored and the TV debate commenced. Dr Zrinzo Azzopardi and myself agreed that an election was the only way out of the political crisis while Dr Mifsud Bonnici chose to focus on the priorities of the Nationalist government. This is the same tune that Lawrence Gonzi has been repeating for some days now.

The fact remains that, beyond economic growth and statistical wonders, a solitary member of Parliament has put the whole country hostage and keeps everyone guessing what his next move will be.

Fast forward some days and I was in Brussels for a working group meeting of the European Green Party. Technological wonders of the 21st century allowed me to follow the PN general conference.

Yet again, surrealism ruled the day. Practically all Maltese civil society – including The Times – save for the PN was arguing that an election should take place, yet Dr Gonzi announced that a leadership context would follow in the PN.

Don’t we all know the foregone conclusion? The PN leadership contest can be seen as a surreal spectacle in an attempt to make real electoral gains. The contest looks totally out of place, yet, in practice, it will give time to the PN to beef up its ranks, dish out favours and use its power of incumbency. In the process, it will hope to narrow the gap in electoral polls.

Labour’s mediocre campaign, lacking substance and style, keeps the Nationalists hoping.

Yet, the fact remains that no leadership contest will solve the political instability in the country. This instability risks acting like a snowball, causing economic instability. To date, Malta has managed to avoid the latter, notwithstanding the fact that the labour market is characterised by increased exploitation and precariousness and notwithstanding the fact that our economy is too reliant on unsustainable activities such as over-dependency on fossil fuels and on the building industry.

The political crisis only confirms that the two-party system is bankrupt. Malta remains the only country in Europe, from Germany to San Marino, with only two parties in Parliament.

The time has come to replace our fossilised electoral system, erstwhile designed to protect the interests of the PNPL duopoly, and to replace it with a system that guarantees pluralism.

This will then augur well for politics based on coalitions of parties and joint programmes based on key issues and policies and, thus, do away with coalitions of individuals in catch-all parties.

Perhaps the greatest surreal experience in this spectacle is the fact that both the PN and the PL want to retain the electoral system or distort it even further to keep others out. Yet, who knows, next time around there might be two, three, four Franco Debonos unless Malta truly adopts a European politics of coalitions.

The author, a sociologist, is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance, Alternattiva Demokratika – the green party.

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