Can social movements replace political parties? Politics today has become increasingly fragmented and unpredictable. Gone is the age of political parties with clear agendas and solid constituents. The voting base of many social democratic parties has been decimated, minority parties are on the increase, and a wave of populism is currently underway.
In Malta, Labour’s electoral strength represents one of the very few exceptions to the downfall of social democracy across the EU. On the other hand, the Nationalist Party has an uphill struggle to establish itself as the alternative government.
The other party in Parliament, Partit Demokratiku, is trying to seduce politicians, activists and voters from the PN, knowing that without the comfort of being on a big party list it has minimal chance of re-election. Like other small parties, it also knows that it can either act as a minor voice that can achieve minor concessions or practise the art of compromise to have a chance to be in power.
Following the brutal murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta has also witnessed a wave of protests and actions including the three mass demonstrations organised by Civil Society Network and the colourful activism of Occupy Justice, Kenniesa, Awturi and others. Such activism, which is based along the theme of justice and for good governance, represents the current social movement wave in the country. But how long can it last?
To answer this question we must understand what social movements are about. Modern societies have witnessed the rise of forces for change, ranging from workers’ unions to feminist organisations. The past decades have also witnessed an increase in other movements, such as environmentalist, peace, democratisation and localist organisations.
Some movements have remained actively consistent across the decades, as is the case with the environmentalist movement. Some environmentalists cooperate with state structures, while others are more autonomous.
Other movements have fizzled out and represented waves rather than consistency. A most recent example is the global Occupy Movement which occupied squares in various countries to protest against capitalist austerity.
The movement may have had noble aims through its horizontalist structures, but its insistence in seeing the state and political parties as inherently evil and monolithic led it to a dead end of sectarian activism. Such single-issue activism is less willing to compromise for the sake of effective governance and governing projects. It may mobilise strongly committed minorities, at least for some time, but long-term activism and support is much harder to achieve. Besides, people’s perceptions on single issues may change.
Instead, such movements should look at the state and political parties as forming part of a complex set of contradictory and dynamic social relations where alliances can be formed to reach goals. A synergy can be reached between movement organisations and political parties.
Some social movement organisations understood this. For example, Donald Trump’s success in the US can go back to the creation of the grassroots-based Tea Party movement which attracted disenchanted voters back into the Republican Party fold. In Spain, the new Podemos Party owes its success to the previous Indignados movement, and Britain’s Labour has become a serious threat to the Conservative Party also thanks to the activism of the momentum movement.
In Malta, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party owes at least part of its success to the fact that it managed to unite different identity movements – most notably the LGBTIQ movement – under its banner, in a contradictory alliance that fully exploits the amoral familist ideology of patronage.
Which takes me back to the original question of this article. In my view, social movements are inherently political forces, and their best bet for social change is to create the widest coalitions possible. In democratic societies, such coalitions must involve political parties. This is even more the case in societies with high voter turnouts, such as Malta.
I strongly hold that social movements cannot replace political parties. I would prefer to see political parties and social movements as forming different poles which can complement each other despite their differences. And let us not forget that beyond social movements, there are myriads of silent constituents whose vote is as equal as that of activists, even if less visible in the news.