Monday, June 26, 2017

The Labour hegemony

What is a hegemony? In politics, this refers to a relatively stable force which is characterised by a unity of different parts. Here, power is durable and enjoys wide consent, especially as its leadership manages to unite different values, interests and identities.
But hegemonic power is not eternal. It can implode and be threatened by counter-hegemonic forces. Essentially, the democratic game can be seen as a struggle of different political forces, some of which become hegemonic.
The Nationalist Party achieved this status after its 1987 electoral victory, when it became the ‘natural party of government’. This era is part of Malta’s past and we are now experiencing a Labour hegemony.
When Alfred Sant became Labour’s leader in 1992, he tried to create a modernised and inclusive alternative to the PN. He purged violent elements from Labour and attempted to build a meritocratic government. Labour won the 1996 general election but some ill-timed decisions and Mintoff’s exploitation of the logic of numbers led to its collapse after 22 months.
When Joseph Muscat was elected Labour leader in 2008 he opened the doors of the party to all those ready to work with it, including Labourites who were not in Sant’s good books. Muscat adopted a populistic ‘moderate and progressive’ strategy and his charisma was increasing steadily.
In 2010, I wrote that such politics without adversaries has good electoral prospects but I also expressed doubt on its impacts and durability. Well, the latter did not quite happen: to date, Labour has won eight consecutive local, European and national victories between 2009 and 2017 with its results varying between 53.4 and 56.6 per cent.
Some might argue that Labour is retaining Malta’s economic status quo, to the benefit of big business, but this reductive argument does not fully explain why this party has been winning consistently.
Under Muscat, the party retained its base of core voters including a good chunk of the working class vote. But its current hegemonic formation also includes supporters of the current economic feel-good factor, those who prioritise the party’s liberal turn, beneficiaries of Labour’s patronage and micro-targeting approaches and people put off by the PN.
Muscat’s great communication skills and the party’s direct and indirect media tactics bond the different parts together and have so far earned him more trust than all other political leaders in the past decade.
Besides, the increased centralisation of powers from local councils and authorities to ministers give the party a greater role to play in managing power.
This is also being accompanied by an increasingly red civil service and policies such as the sale of passports and over-reliance on construction and its spin-offs. As far as the former goes, I wonder whether all revenues are accounted for and whether they help finance Labour’s political strategy.
This is not to say that Labour did not experience its own implosions. Indeed, scientific polls show that Labour did lose votes to the Nationalist Party in the 2017 election. But the opposite happened too, thus resulting in Labour’s massive victory a few weeks ago.
When will Labour’s hegemony come to an end? This is difficult to say. Would anyone have imagined that Labour would have created such an efficient electoral machine after its long years in Opposition? The future always lasts a long time and it is never written in advance.
And this means that the PN can create a strong counter hegemonic force. Maybe it can outdo Labour by turning the latter’s strategy against itself.
The PN can aim for a wide and broad coalition that gels within the party’s main goals. These should not be straitjacketed under one reductive ideology but should be based on common values that fit within a broad umbrella.
The PN can build upon its good governance pledge and coalition approach by ensuring that its electoral strategy is grounded in Malta’s plural realities.
Thus, it should also focus on bread and butter concerns, micro-tactics and effective communication. Internally, the party should keep the doors open to newcomers while ensuring that loyalists feel a sense of belonging.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Who should lead the PN?

Times of Malta 19 June 2017

In my post-election reflection published in this newspaper last week, I suggested that the Nationalist Party calmly takes its time to choose a new leader. I also suggested that in the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership.
As things stand it seems that there is no clear contender for the post. It would be beneficial to act wisely and slowly to ensure that a proper, open and deliberative leadership contest takes place. Acting rash can give an instant leader, but can have longer-term repercussions.
The current Nationalist leadership may decide otherwise and may have its good reasons to do so.  Should this be the case, I still urge the party to conduct a comprehensive brainstorming exercise to identify the key challenges, opportunities and risks.
The PN should also conduct constant empirical and grounded social-scientific research on demographic trends, lifestyle concerns, aspirations, values and situations of people in Malta. Such research should be ongoing and should involve both quantitative and qualitative methods, from the analysis of big data to the ethnographic interpretation of micro-realities.
The party should also take heed of the various arguments being made of what type of leadership is required in Malta’s current context.
For example, one argument is that the new leader should be an excellent communicator, especially when one considers that Joseph Muscat is capable of turning risks into opportunities through his rhetorical skills. I suggest that Muscat’s declaration that he will not contest in the upcoming general election should also be interpreted within his skill set.
Another argument is that the new leader should be streetwise. Indeed, many voters may not be concerned with abstract theory, but may have more immediate concerns beyond the radars of party strategists. A key challenge here would be how to reconcile such concerns with the common good, with realistic policy and with electability. They often can and should be reconciled, but sometimes, red lines have to be drawn. Again, excellent communication is key.
Some commentators have also discussed the ideological orientation of the PN. I find this debate very interesting. My interpretation in this regard is that both the Nationalist and Labour parties are umbrella parties which are broader than the respective classic textbook definitions of Christian democracy and social democracy.
Indeed, both parties have internal spans across the centre-left and centre-right. They also both have their own traditions, loyalists, factions and other characteristics which go beyond political ideology and which are better interpreted within Maltese social, cultural and economic factors.
The parties sometimes may have peculiarities which may seem odd to observers from other contexts. For example certain liberals may feel more comfortable in the PN and certain conservatives may feel more comfortable in the Labour Party, and vice-versa. This may have to do with historic events for example in the 1960s and 1980s and also with more recent historic events such as Malta’s EU accession, the introduction of divorce, civil liberties and governance issues. This also has to do with political capital of respective party leaderships.
But differences may also have to do with certain dispositions within the respective parties. For example, Labour has inherited an anti-colonial nationalism and top-down centralism while the Nationalist Party is usually more open to a Europeanist legacy of deliberation and self-criticism. Then again, Labour is more in synch with certain cultures in Malta today.
It is therefore imperative that the new leader of the PN reconciles the various factions and traditions within it. And this should also mean that the leadership team as a whole reflects such diversity. A leader is only as good as the team around her or him.
Identity gives a sense of belonging to a party’s members and constituents. But identity itself is never a monolith, unless one opts for the absolutist road. It is the common denominator among diversity that gels a party together.
A politically relevant leadership should therefore be principled but flexible, reaching out to aspirations of plural identities of consumers, citizens, families, groups, categories and classes. Democratic reconciliation is key.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Post-election reflections

Times of Malta 12 June 2017

The Egrant issue hit the headlines. The polls were showing that Labour was clearly on top. Joseph Muscat called a snap election. And Labour decimated Forza Nazzjonali.
Indeed, the public scientific surveys of Malta Today, It-Torca, The Sunday Times of Malta, The Malta Independent and Xarabank all showed clear trends, even though some voters were shifting allegiances.
That one survey was more precise than another is mere coincidence. All had reliable research methods.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Labour’s winning strategy was how it turned a liability into an asset.
Egrant motivated Muscat to go to the polls, and it was evident that this was done to avoid political damage. But eventually, the Labour narrative of ‘where’s the proof’ became stronger and stronger.
Whereas Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s involvement in Panama Papers was crystal clear, the ownership of Egrant was subject to debate. Truth? Alternative facts? That is really beside the point.
But surely, Egrant alone cannot explain a 35,000-vote difference.
One major reason why Labour was triumphant is that its leadership was more capable of reading the concerns of different groups in society. These include those who are not trapped in media bubbles and those who are looked down upon and ignored by elitists.
Surely, one important aspect of this strategy was Labour’s exploitation of amoral familism, or the prioritising of immediate interests through patronage over the common good and the longer term.
Hence, whereas Labour’s rural policy was criticised by environmentalists for encouraging development in such areas, small farmers saw this as a boon for their family investment. Whereas the general lack of enforcement in localities was criticized by civilly-minded residents, this was seen as an opportunity for many to make a quick buck.
In the election run-up, Labour managed to micro-target scores of disappointed and non-Labour voters through promotions, permits and so forth.
But again, I don’t think that amoral familism alone can explain Labour’s massive victory. Muscat’s government was a government that delivered in various areas.
This included civil liberties, welfare-to-work social policies, doing away with heavy fuel oil, and achieving a surplus. The economy was performing well for big and small businesses and unemployment was low.
Muscat’s charisma and Southern European machismo was also evidently more attractive than Simon Busuttil’s soft-spokenness.
So, how did the PN achieve such a terrible result?
The PN’s media campaign was very well structured. But Maltese society and media bubbles are not the same thing. Very often, the social media ends up being made up of echo chambers of like-minded people speaking to themselves.
As Robert Arrigo put it, the PN was not street-wise enough.
Corruption ‘protagonists’ and Forza Nazzjonali supporters constantly hit the headlines.
But, clearly there were a good number of concerned Labour voters who trusted Muscat’s package more than that of Busuttil.
They probably now expect Muscat to stay true to his word on his promises regarding governance and accountability.
I suggest that the PN calmly takes its time to choose a new leader, possibly even longer than the September appointment.
In the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership to manage things. Labour did this with Charles Mangion last time around.
The small parties had mixed fortunes.
Alternattiva Demokratika stood on its own feet but failed miserably. Its puritan discourse against the rest of Malta was too sectarian. Subsequently it lost half its vote and is now no longer Malta’s third party.
On the other hand, Partit Demokratiku’s coalition with the PN proved to be a winner, resulting in the first third party candidate in parliament since 1962.
Marlene Farrugia was a rainbow in the dark in the erstwhile disappointing result of Forza Nazzjonali. Personally, I am proud to have set the ball rolling on this, when I suggested such coalitions in an article in this newspaper in 2015.
Consequently, PD took the plunge and was vindicated. Perhaps it can now act similarly to the CDU/CSU coalition in Germany, being a loyal yet autonomous partner.
Maybe PD can also affirm its autonomy by joining the European Liberals and fielding its own candidates in upcoming local elections while being in coalition in European and general elections.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Sustaining the economy

One of the main challenges of Malta’s newly elected government will be to sustain the country’s economy. This requires a proper balance between economic, social and environmental priorities.
During the last decade or so, Malta registered relatively fast real GDP growth when compared to most EU member states, with growth accelerating during the past four years.
However there are various weaknesses in the economy, mostly associated with impacts on people’s quality of life, social disparities and weak governance. I will give a few examples.
The rapid rate of increase in construction permits by the Planning Authority has led to deterioration in the quality of life of many residents, mostly due to lack of control over the malpractices of various building contractors.
This has led to increased emissions of dust, discomfort for the neighbouring residents, rubble and building debris strewn in the streets, and uglification of the surroundings due to the ramshackle manner in which hoardings are made.
In addition, the unregulated use of old polluting equipment by building contractors, further contributes to the bad quality of the air we inhale. The intrusion of construction developments into ODZ and green areas has led to a reduction of open spaces.
Another economic activity with impacts on the quality of life relates to excessive dependency on private cars. It would be politically suicidal to expect people to do away with their cars, but governments have an important role to play to provide viable alternatives. Thus, modal-shifts to alternative means of transport should be prioritised to mitigate against excessive emissions and traffic congestion.
If we now turn to non-polluting economic activities, such as financial services, we also observe problems due to lack of regulation. Malta’s rate of growth in the financial services was accompanied by a deterioration of the country’s reputation due to matters such as Panama Papers and the Pilatus Bank controversy.
It is vital that institutions such as the Malta Financial Services Authority are reformed so as to enjoy universal trust by economic and political players.
The igaming industry, which has attracted so many foreigners to Malta, has mostly grown as a result of fiscal attractions. If such attractions cease to exist, possibly due to pressure from the EU Commission, the industry could be highly negatively affected.
Therefore, while Malta should seek to maintain its competitive edge in this industry, it should not have excessive dependence on it and should continuously seek to diversify its economy.
It is also important to note that one unintended side-effect of the growth of such industries, also due to lack of proper regulation, is that the inflow of highly-paid foreigner workers has led to a rapid increase in rent of residencies, with spill-over effects on the whole rental market. As is well known, this in turn has led to major social problems for low-income earners.
Similar social problems are also the result of economic disparities such as giving lower wages to workers who do identical work as others. The new government should ensure that regulatory institutions are properly equipped to investigate and enforce on such matters.
Another problem relates to the selling of passports. This practice has indeed generated funds for Malta, but it has been criticised as lacking proper oversight, as selling access to the European Union, possibly undermining the Schengen system, and as associating Malta with shady deals. This approach is not a sustainable way of generating economic growth and is not helping much to improve Malta’s reputation.
Economic good governance has deteriorated during these last four years, with an unacceptable degree of ‘anything goes’ practices, sometimes explicitly or implicitly condoning corruption.
Malta’s new government should address these shortcomings so that Malta’s economic growth will also be sustainable and inclusive. It should lead to factual and tangible improvement in the quality of life and social well-being of residents in Malta.
This requires good political, social, economic and environmental governance, which should be built on sound regulatory frameworks. Such a direction is imperative for the restoration of Malta’s reputation.

Malta Election 2017 - The Bottom Line

The bottom line: Labour achieved an exceptional result, the Nationalist Party achieved a terrible result. 

The electorate kept them practically in same place as in 2013, i.e. a historic gap between them. Labour won 170,976 votes (55.06%). The Nationalist Party's 'Forza Nazzjonali' won 135,696 votes (43.68%). In 2013 Labour obtained 54.83%, whilst the Nationalist Party obtained 43.34%. The difference is so big that further comments on the two parties are futile at this stage. 

The Democratic Party ('orange' candidates within PN list) is now Malta's third party and the first one to be in parliament since 1962, after Marlene Farrugia was elected in the 10th district through the Forza Nazzjonali pre-electoral coalition. Her votes and those of Godfrey Farrugia stand out within PD, with 1016, 821, 494, 1080 first preference votes in the respective 10th, 5th, 6th and 7th districts. In all the party won 4,826 first preference votes, or 1.53%. 

Alternattiva Demokratika received less than 1% for the 2nd time in its history (0.83% : 2003 was the other instance, when it received 0.7%), In 2013 AD won 5,506 first preference votes. This time around the amount decreased to 2,564.

The Patriots won 1,117 first preference votes (0.36%).

This is the basic starting point of any analysis. Numbers don't lie. Context cannot be ignored. And our context is Maltese society. 

I will be giving my interpretation of the 2017 election in my Times of Malta opinion piece next Monday, and in further writings in due course.

In the meantime, taking a step back to reflect is imperative. This requires taking responsibility for one's actions, humility and a healthy dose of introspection and self-critique by all players and analysts.

Official electoral result updates can be found here.

Times of Malta live election blog can be found here.

My initial reaction to Times of Malta on electoral result can be found here