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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

Heal the divide

I would like to think it is not beyond our collective capabilities to come together and thrash out this national, endemic problem of ours. But we do have to make that effort

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
6 June 2017, 7:30am
The logical next step after this bitterly divisive campaign would be to literally drop everything, put all engagement son hold, sideline all other considerations... and finally embark on the national reconciliation project
The logical next step after this bitterly divisive campaign would be to literally drop everything, put all engagement son hold, sideline all other considerations... and finally embark on the national reconciliation project
Yes, I used the same headline before in this election. Sometimes, things need to be repeated.

I am writing this as the first indications are coming in, around 11 am on Sunday. Labour has clearly won; the extent of the majority is the only thing that remains unknown with any certainty. There are, however, fairly reliable indications that it will be a very clear, unequivocal mandate.

I could waste a lot of time analysing this (not exactly unpredictable) result, but I think it would be more or less pointless at this stage. The election has settled the question of who was trusted more to administer the reins of government in this country. But it tells us nothing about how we are all expected to live with each other in peace and harmony, after what can only be described as the most violent election campaign we’ve seen in recent years.

The word ‘violent’ may sound exaggerated, given that we have had fatal shootings and bombings in elections gone by. But the definition of the word ‘violence’ is not limited to brute physical force; it extends also to attitudes, to the way we speak to each other, to the way we seem to be incapable of ever tolerating perspectives different from our own.

On voting day, I posted a tongue-in-cheek comment on the overall campaign: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, to hear the lamentation of their women... vote Conan the Barbarian, Number One’.

It wasn’t just a reference to a favourite childhood escapist movie. That is how this campaign really felt like. Never have I heard Malta’s tribal political rhetoric descend to such dangerous levels. It was as though the entire campaign had been constantly dipped into a bubbling cauldron of enmity and adversity.  

But let me depart from tradition of useless electoral post-mortems, and focus on a positive aspect for a change. Actually, two.

There are a couple of people I want to congratulate in this campaign. The first is that 97-year-old woman who went out to vote (you might have read the headline, or seen the Facebook status updates). Well, the reason I want to congratulate her is that she probably wouldn’t have been able to vote at all... if she was 97 in any election until 2008. 

One of the ugliest of our many ugly electoral traditions was that (until very recently) both parties used to regularly file writs in court to have individual voters struck off the electoral registry. The official pretext was that these voters were ‘infirm of mind’... which is already pretty awful in itself, when you stop to think about it. But in practice it was very often simply because they were old. 

Anyone over 80 – on both sides of the political divide, as both parties used to routinely resort to this disgusting practice – could find him or herself having to go through court procedures to regain the supposedly ‘sacrosanct’  right to vote. And the ultimate irony is that the attempt to disenfranchise them, and reduce them to the status of ‘slaves’ (or other non-voting segments... which included women until 1945) will have been made by one of two parties which a) claim to have invented democracy themselves, and b) always argue that democracy cannot possibly survive without them in government.

I was therefore happy and proud to see that this did not happen in this election – nor, to the best of my knowledge, in 2013 either. I believe the last attempt was made in 2008... and the last party that tried to do it (won’t bother saying which, as it would defeat the scope of this conciliatory article) withdrew the requests in shame after the news report prompted a public outcry. Neither party has done it since. 

This is a hopeful sign. It means that there still can be watershed moments which force us to confront the ugliness of what we are, or what we have allowed ourselves to become. The best part of this particular example is that it didn’t even need a change in legislation. The law permitting that sort of thing is still in place; but any party trying to avail of it today it would find itself so maligned and ostracised that the electoral cost would simply no longer be worth it. That, to me, is a better thing than a legislative reform. The change was not forced from above... it was forced from below. All the way down to grassroots level, in fact.

Having said this, it is small consolation for all the other ugly habits we have yet to wean ourselves off. The second person I would like to congratulate is the President, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca. One of the difficulties faced by any President in this country is knowing when to speak, and when not to speak. It also helps to actually say the right things in the former case.

In this election, the President of the Maltese republic – in my oh-so-humble opinion – said exactly what needed to be said, when it needed to be said. No more, no less. I am almost tempted to just reproduce her televised statement on Saturday verbatim: not only is it worth repeating in full, but it would spare me the bother of writing out the same argument myself. But I will limit myself to a single quote:

“The country had become ‘less human’ thanks to the division sowed by the political parties during the electoral campaign.” 

Never a truer word spoken. But – as the President also rightly hinted – humanity can be restored. It may seem to be entirely absent from our political landscape at the moment: but looks are sometimes deceiving.

I would like to think it is not beyond our collective capabilities to come together and thrash out this national, endemic problem of ours. But we do have to make that effort.

The logical next step after this bitterly divisive campaign would be to literally drop everything, put all engagements on hold, sideline all other considerations... and finally embark on the national reconciliation project we were promised so long ago, and which we so very clearly need.

I would be willing to help in any way I can.

DealToday
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