Unsettling the Bipolar/Unipolar Mindset

Babelmed | 25/06/2004

On Saturday, 12 June, the Maltese chose to make a little history. By voting for a third political party they chose to challenge the duopoly/monopoly that has often strangled the country over the past thirty years or so.

The polls had been giving the Green Party’s sole candidate for Malta’s first ever European Parliamentary Elections as much as 9% of the vote. This was a far cry from the 0.7% of first count votes obtained by the Party in last year’s General Elections. Those elections had sealed Malta’s fate as a member of the EU and almost sealed the fate of Alternattiva Demokratika (the Maltese Greens) as well. The Maltese Greens eventually managed 9.52% of the vote: an extraordinary result. However, despite receiving the fourth largest number of first count votes, the Green candidate did not inherit enough votes from the other candidates to become one of the five Maltese MEPs. It was a bitter sweet success for AD.

Ever since Malta’s first europarliamentary vote, that also highlighted the unpopularity of the ruling Conservative Party (the Nationalist Party, or PN) whose share plummeted from 52% in last year’s general elections to 39%, many of the analyses in the papers have failed to acknowledge the fact that the distribution of political power on the Maltese Islands changed when the Maltese chose to join the EU.

The editorial of the highly influential daily The Times of Wednesday, June 16, 2004, is a good example of the mental straitjacket that many opinion makers have continued to wear despite the new situation: “As political analysts continue to dissect the outcome of the result,” wrote the editor, “it is likely to emerge that voters from the Nationalist [conservative] camp who moved over to Alternattiva Demokratika may have done so more as a protest against their own party than as an endorsement of the Green Party’s policies as such.” “Of course,” wrote the editor, “AD may disagree with this and may well argue that it had attracted the votes on the strength of its arguments. That may well be true, of course, but the real test lies not in European parliamentary elections or, even, in local council elections, but in general elections.”

Like The Times, many conservative opinion makers have insisted that: (a) the Greens got their votes from the pro-EU conservative party; and (b) that the “real” test of the strength of the Green vote lies in the General Elections. The editorial of The Sunday Times of June 20, 2004, entitled “A protest vote, mainly,” argued that on June 12, “the absence of any caution regarding the use of the first preference meant that voters felt this was the time to protest against their ‘traditional’ party.” In other words, the Maltese express their “real” political views in General Elections.

In The Malta Independent on Sunday (June 20, 2004), political editor Noel Grima wrote that “what we may be seeing is the breakdown of the PN [which he calls “the monolith” in the title] from the one umbrella party, the one broad church, to a galaxy of similar-minded parties”: Alternattiva Demokratika is a faction of the PN. If he’s right, and I sure hope he isn’t, many of the 23 000 people who gave their first preference to AD have confused Green politics with disgruntled liberal, Christian Democratic ideology.

Sammy Vella, writing in The Malta Independent on Sunday (20 June, 2004), offers a different take on the first point: “PN monitors in the counting hall have confirmed that most AD first count votes did not award second or third preferences to PN candidates. Therefore the AD vote seems to be quite a determined one and not an adventurous and nonchalant expression.” And in L-Orizzont (16 June, 2004), the daily that sympathizes with the opposition Malta Labour Party, Reno Borg wrote that AD ran an “honest” campaign and its chairperson, Harry Vassallo, “spoke in an honest way.”

Some people’s argument that many of the 23 000 votes for AD were really “PN votes” temporarily transferred to AD may be the result of their bipolar mindset: perhaps they cannot conceive of a situation in which there are more than two parties around.

On the second point about the “real” test being the General Election, AD has argued that for the first time since Independence (1964) the Maltese electorate has had the opportunity to vote freely for the party that truly represents their aspirations. Other “national” elections prior to this one were dominated by the “politics of fear”: if you don’t vote for “your” party, you will be voting the “other” party into government. Can you afford to do that?

The argument that the europarliamentary election is not an “important” vote makes sense if you don’t want one of the two main political parties, the PN or the Malta Labour Party, to loose their firm grip on Maltese institutions and society in general. From now on, something like 50% of our legislation will be baked by our MEPs in Brussels. There are at least two other, perhaps complementary considerations to be made: (a) Every national election in Malta seems to be increasing the number of floating voters; (b) More people seem to think that the two major political parties are more similar than they would like to admit, especially now that the profoundly divisive issue of Malta’s membership of the EU has been settled.

At a rally for supporters held a week after the Europarliamentary elections, the chairperson of the Green Party made a bold statement: “We know that our voters are free thinkers with great expectations. We will do our best to rise up to [their] expectations”. But perhaps it is not only those who voted for AD who are free thinkers: a sizable chunk of the electorate, an incredible 18% (for a country used to an average voter turnout of 96%) simply did not vote or even pick up their voting documents. What The Sunday Times calls “an inordinately high” 2% of the potential voters “chose to spoil their ballot papers.” About 2% voted for independent candidates, including the far-right white supremacist candidate who polled an “alarmingly high” 0.7% and the hunters’ candidate who attracted just over 1%. The major political parties hope this is just “a protest vote, mainly,” that their suffocating grip on the country is not at stake; others suggest that this may be another indication of the secularization of Maltese minds.

“Partitokrazija” vs “Demokrazija”
For too long now Malta has been a “partitokrazija” rather than a “demokrazija,” but you won’t find that cheeky word in Maltese dictionaries. It’s as if the concept of forfeiting democracy to the main political parties that cancel each other, and anyone else, out never existed here.

The country’s most important institutions and the media are caught in the debilitating ring of party wrangling. Democracy is merely the right of both sides to air their views, whatever they may be. This pitiful state of affairs is nowhere more pathetic than in television and other forms of mass media. Time on the most popular programme, the 8 o’clock news on Television Malta, the national TV station, is scrupulously shared by the two parties. Journalists are expected to allot the same time to reports about manifestations, press statements, counter statements and counter counter statements by the two main parties represented in Parliament. This leaves little time for much else. The 8 o’clock news, for example, almost never carries features about book launches because “if we cover one launch, then we’ll have to cover them all.” Perhaps the parties don’t want to lose any of the time apportioned to them.

The other two main television stations are owned by the two main political parties. Literally. And they also have their own radio stations. At election time (with local council and national elections and EU membership, we’ve had nothing but elections for the past couple of years) these stations are nothing but propaganda machines churning out pseudo discussions led by pseudo journalists following a strict party line for the converted.

Therefore the question of “partitokrazija,” a word which is a bit more malicious than the neutral-sounding translation I found in my Italian-English dictionary, “party power,” is strongly linked to the media, but also to the electoral system. The Electoral Commission is designed by the two main political parties to suit none other than themselves. The way things stand, without a national threshold, it is almost impossible for Alternattiva Demokratika, or any other party for that matter, to elect even one of the 65 members of the national Parliament. The two parties seemed to have agreed that a third party would be a threat to the power and the monopoly of both. But the European Parliamentary elections have imposed a new reality that circumvents the clutches of the duopoly and this has finally allowed for what the Maltese Greens have called a “free vote.” Saturday’s vote has reinforced AD’s call for a reform of the electoral system, a reform which it sees as “the next step in the democratic development of our country.”

Some Greens may think that they have done well because they are no longer seen as “radicals” – given the right circumstances, they’re a safe bet… But this is what may spell their doom: if the Greens try to emulate their “bigger brothers” they will no longer be an alternative to the dead-end politics that have bruised the Maltese Islands permanently.

The Distribution of Power (and Information)
“What you should do when you’re looking at any society,” suggests Noam Chomsky in Propaganda and the Public Mind (interviewed by David Barsamian) (2001), “is begin by asking, How is power distributed? Who makes the main decisions? Who decides what’s going to be produced, consumed and distributed? Who’s going to be in the political world? Who makes the decisions that are going to affect people’s lives? You can figure that out in most places pretty easily.”

Chomsky suggests that what you should ask next is “whether policies and the shaping of information reflect the distribution of power. That’s what any rational person would expect.” In the case of Malta the extraordinary power wielded by the main political parties and the other powers that be who support them is reflected in the way they decide what is up for discussion and what is not; who the experts are and whose opinions do not deserve our consideration; where the country should be heading and where it has come from. Very often they see themselves as the focal point of everything that is worth taking note of.

In Malta, the “partitokrazija” experience has meant, for example, that our governments have refused to take vital decisions to save the natural environment from the disproportionate power wielded by land speculators and building contractors and the hunting lobby. Ever since Independence in 1964, Malta has become one big construction site. On an island with a total area of 316 sq km and a population that has now reached 400, 000 (the population density is therefore over 1,260, one of the highest in the world), agricultural land continues to decrease steadily every year and the unbuilt spaces are taken over by thousands of hunters (and bird trappers) who roam what’s left of the countryside in the best months of the year. The environment has suffered a great deal. Alternattiva Demokratika has its roots precisely in the environmental activism that sprung to the fore of the non-governmental sector in the 1980s.

A Vote on the Monopoly
Saturday’s was an important vote. It suggested that the Maltese may not be particularly keen on supporting the duopoly that seems to have monopolized the country “forever;” Perhaps the Maltese are finally ready to allow space for something or someone else.

The Green party not only fielded a candidate, Arnold Cassola, with years of experience as the Secretary General of the European Federation of Green Parties, who was backed all the way by a Party chairperson, Harry Vassallo, who is widely respected for his honesty, perseverance and intellect, but it is also “fielded” its strong ties with the European Greens. Over the past few years, especially since Alternattiva Demokratika, mainly through Cassola, established strong ties with other Green parties in Europe and beyond, the human and intellectual resources of the European Greens have become an increasingly important player in the often barren land of Maltese politics. AD constantly relays the findings and positions of its partners across Europe to its own activists, to the non-governmental sector and to the Maltese public in general, thus introducing both new issues and new perspectives that would otherwise fail to find a place for themselves in local political discourse.

The “unpopular” issue of immigration is an important case in point. Alternattiva Demokratika and Prof. Cassola have made ample use of the informed position taken by the European Greens on this particular issue. Writing in The Sunday Times (9.11.2003), Cassola stated that “for us Greens, there is no doubt about it: humane treatment comes first and foremost,” and therefore “it simply makes no sense that people who have committed no crime except the breach of immigration regulations are basically being treated like criminals.” Sometimes they live in conditions which are even worse than those of convicted criminals. Detention should only be used as a “last resort and asylum seekers should be accommodated in open centres.”

Unlike the two main political parties in Malta, Cassola argues that temporary work permits should be granted to asylum-seekers to allow them to be self-sufficient. He says that they and all other foreign workers “should be guaranteed basic working conditions to avoid their exploitation and the fear of other workers that they are being undercut.”

In his article, Prof. Cassola acknowledges the fact that “the problem of the near-weekly influx of people fleeing from misery, wars and poverty to our little island remains and has to be tackled. A step in the right direction, in my opinion, would be for the Maltese government to make strong pressure on the European Union to consider the problem of illegal human trafficking as a European problem, and not a Maltese one.” This would mean that it would be “the EU’s duty to pay for the maintenance of asylum-seekers who find themselves in Malta, as in any other external frontier region of the EU.”

“Free” Elections
AD’s chairperson, Dr. Harry Vassallo, has argued that for many years, politics in Malta have been dominated not by discussion but by fear, resulting in zero-sum politics: whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other so that the net change is always zero. In one of his last statements before the end of the electoral campaign, Vassallo described the European Parliamentary elections as “the first free elections in the last twenty years” because this time the issue is not who will be governing the country for the next five years.

In a similar vein, in a recent interview by journalist Karl Schembri in the Malta Today (6.6.04), Arnold Cassola described the vote on 12th June as “a different election,” the first time voters are “liberated from the partisan chains that have surrounded general elections so far, where the attitude of the two major parties has been that of winner takes all.”

Schembri notes, however, that despite Cassola’s optimism, the absolute majority of Maltese voters will still not vote for Alternattiva because “they do not want an alternative party.” Cassola replies that he doesn’t expect AD to become the majority party. “What we need is a good foothold to start creating awareness on the need for a third voice and why not, fourth, fifth voice in this country. We’re just replicating the European model after all. We’ve joined the EU, and as we go along it’s inevitable that we start taking up EU patterns in politics. Now it’s all a matter of speeding up the process.”

Many people claim to have voted in favour of Malta joining the EU because they wanted to see more progress in areas such as transparency and accountability, education, culture and cultural management, and the environment in a country immobilized by petty politics that accommodate the business powers that be. Malta’s first europarliamentary vote has shown that the increasingly secularized Maltese are calling for change and that they have refused the conservative politics of fear.

Adrian Grima

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