Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist of global influence is comparing Trump’s presidency to an experiment on whether the United States “is a nation of laws or a nation of men”. This is because US democracy, with all its limitations, has a resilient system of constitutional checks and balances against the excessive concentration of executive power.
On the other hand, Donald Trump does not seem very much concerned with the legitimacy of established institutions such as official statistics, the free press and the judiciary.
Such institutions are what differentiate liberal democracies from illiberal ones. The former is based on majority rule but equally values the rights of the individual and of minorities. Here, no majority rule can take away rights such as free speech or fair hearings at court. Multi-levels of power ranging from central government to local councils and from the judiciary to the public service are supposed to balance each other out.
Thus, democracy is safeguarded from the dangers of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The Western world is usually seen as the best example of liberal democracy. Hence the current anxiety caused by Trump’s antics.
On the other hand, illiberal democracy is based on majority rule, full stop. Two current examples include Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were both elected to their positions in multi-party elections, and both have popular support. Yet, checks and balances are largely lacking. Independent journalists, critical academics and civil society do not enjoy the freedoms which exist in many western societies.
Hannah Arendt, a great political thinker during the mid-20th century said that temptations to accumulate power and wealth may be found in all political systems. But liberal democracies have checks and balances which act against such excesses. And if these are weakened or destroyed, society may slip towards authoritarian or totalitarian rule.
Hence, it is the duty of every self-respecting democrat to be wary of political maneuvers which disregard checks and balances.
Which takes us to Malta.
From a legal perspective, checks and balances exist in Malta, as the country conforms to the basic prerequisites required by EU member states.
Yet, politics and policy-making is not simply about transposing legislation, important as this is. The implementation and improvement of legislation is equally important. The state should ensure that institutions are adequately equipped to ensure that democracy functions properly.
The behavior of Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is acting in bad faith in this regard. There are too many examples of bad governance. To add insult to injury, various key exponents of the government speak and act shamelessly. Chris Cardona’s garnishee order against Daphne Caruana Galizia is the latest of such examples.
Like the various Trumps and Erdogans, the Prime Minister and a good number of Cabinet ministers say that they have the support of the majority and therefore they decide, full stop.
They ignore the advice of the National Audit Office, one of Malta’s most upright institutions. They dodge parliamentary questions and the press. When they publish public contracts, they rub off key information. They are eroding people’s trust in the police force and state authorities. Instead of resigning due to scandals such as Panama Papers, they remain anchored in their positions and kill all credibility when discussing basic issues such as electricity power cuts. They think that people are not concerned about corruption.
Well, let’s face it, when a Maltese civil society protest was held last year on the Panama Papers scandal, there weren’t the huge crowds which demonstrated in the various Icelands and Romanias. The former forced the Prime Minister to resign due to his involvement in Panama Papers, the latter has forced the government to withdraw legislation which institutionalises corruption.
But 400 people did turn up in Malta, which, by our standards, is quite high - higher than most other civil society demonstrations organised in Malta bar the 4,000-strong save Żonqor one in 2015.
And it could be the case that Malta has a silent section of voters who won’t go out to protest but will judge the government on election day. Indeed, Muscat’s huge victory in 2013 may prove to be pyrrhic one.