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.