In the past days, some columnists in different newspapers suggested that civil society in Malta is very weak. I disagree. My premise is simple: in Malta, civil society is effective when it has clear party political support. Civil society exists in a society characterised by a very high percentage of voters, almost all of whom vote for the two big parties.
Besides, in a small island State where people tend to have plural identities and wear many hats, it is quite common to have civil society activists who are themselves directly or indirectly involved in some form of party politics.
Activists have their own social networks and acquaintances, in a web of solidarity, communication, influence, loyalties, grudges and persuasion.
Some organisations have strong affiliations to certain parties, but there are also various shades of grey. For example, whereas the General Workers’ Union has a clear affiliation – even if informal – with the Labour Party, the Malta Union of Teachers is more ambivalent and autonomous.
Others, such as the Malta Gay Rights Movement, have helped influence political parties to become more progressive on LGBTIQ issues. Labour’s support of the movement has enabled Malta to become Europe’s top performer in this area.
This relative – but not absolute – autonomy, is what gives civil society organisations leverage and influence in politics. They can directly or indirectly help sway votes from one side to another. And as things stand, this is also the power of small parties – most notably the Green Party – whose share of the vote can have a bigger impact on the result of elections than what percentages suggest.
Within such a context, my reading of various successful civil society campaigns is that they usually are successful precisely because of the involvement of political parties, and not the contrary.
The recent environmental victory concerning ODZ development in Wied Għomor is a clear example. Residents organised themselves and collected around 4,000 signatures against the development. They had the active support of some Nationalist Party members of Parliament and PN-led local councils in Swieqi and San Ġwann, of Front Ħarsien ODZ, environmental NGOs and Greens. This may explain why the Planning Authority consequently shot down the proposal.
The relative – but not absolute – autonomy, is what gives civil society organisations leverage and influence in politics
Under previous Nationalist governments there were similar situations. For example, when the Front Against the Golf Course, comprising NGOs, Greens, a Labour-led Rabat local council, a Nationalist MP and others, successfully campaigned against the development. Or when Qui-si-sana residents in Sliema had the support of Greens, NGOs and a Nationalist MP from the locality against the commercialisation of the public garden.
The three referenda held in recent years also show this trend. For example, the pro-EU membership campaign was spearheaded by the Nationalist Party, but the Greens and many civil society organisations ranging from trade unions to employers were vital in the mobilisation of the ‘Yes’ vote.
The divorce referendum was not formally depicted as a ‘political party’ referendum. But surely, the influence of political parties, politicians and the socio-political context of the time had a huge impact on the result.
And the legally-binding hunting referendum also clearly showed the influence of party politics, while confirming that civil society is a rising force, amid strategic strengths and weaknesses.
If one had to measure the impact of civil society through participation in protests, one should also consider the influence of party politics.
General Workers’ Union protests under PN governments always have the indirect support of the Labour Party, and UĦM protests tend to follow this trend in opposite situations.
One can also look beyond mainstream protests. Specifically, why did Front Ħarsien ODZ attract 4,000 people for its Żonqor protest in Valletta last year?
Apart from internal factors and the unity of environmentalists and other activists, the Front clearly incorporated spokespersons and local councillors from all political parties, and in the run-up to the protest, political parties and leading figures from different parties were visibly supporting it.
This strategy adopted for the recent civil society protest, conversely, was much less direct. This can help explain the attendance of around 400 people – which is actually quite high when compared to similar protests.
The death of civil society? Far from it. Through effective strategy, civil society can have huge influence in politics and governance.