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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

A ‘one-horse race’ is no race at all

Words are, and have always been, rather tricky little things. Words like 'democracy' are a good example

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
17 October 2017, 10:05am
Chris Said
Chris Said
Words are, and have always been, rather tricky little things. They have this entirely unreasonable tendency to ‘mean’ something... and to doggedly keep meaning that something, regardless what anyone else might have to say in the matter. 

That also makes them terribly undemocratic, when you stop to think about it a little. ‘Democracy’ is in fact a very good example of this. On paper, the word refers to a political system where ultimate sovereignty rests (or is supposed to rest) with ‘the people’. And all other aspects of the word’s official meaning – the implication that decisions are taken by popular vote, for instance – arise from that single premise.

But if you had to apply that same premise to the word ‘democracy’ itself... well, there would have to be some form of ‘popular vote’ to establish the precise definition, wouldn’t there? It’s not enough to have a dictionary unilaterally deciding that for us. Dictionaries are compiled by academics and experts in philology – the equivalent of ‘technocrats’ in the political sphere, and therefore very much the opposite of what you’d expect in a system of proportional representation.  

No, if semantics were ‘democratic’ in the everyday sense of the word... one would expect a broad public consultation exercise, at least to determine what everyone ‘thinks’ a word means... then there would have to be some kind of shortlist procedure, to narrow down the resulting prospective definitions to a workable choice... and finally, we’d all get to vote in a national referendum, or equivalent of the same. 

I suppose you can all see the shortcomings of the democratic model, when applied to virtually anything in the world but politics. For starters, a definition chosen under those circumstances will almost certainly be incorrect...  for the simple reason that the choice would have been made by an inexpert (and often overwhelmingly ignorant) populace, instead of by people who actually know a thing or do about language. 

But a much more insidious problem would swim into view. It concerns the ‘shortlist’ exercise I alluded to above. Sticking to the word ‘democracy’ for now... how many people out there, I wonder, would have an interest in subverting the dictionary definition of that word to satisfy their own political agenda? What sort of lobby-groups would emerge, campaigning for a new definition that (among other possibilities) might dilute, or even eliminate, the basic premise of ‘power in the hands of the people’? How much money and other resources would be invested in that goal? How soon, ultimately, before a sizeable majority is persuaded to vote in an entirely new definition of ‘democracy’... that in practice means the clean opposite of the old one?

It would happen in a flash, I tell you; because such forces do exist, and they are already very hard at work. 

You can even get a glimpse of them in action over the ongoing (and, oh, so tortuous) process of choosing a new PN deputy leader for parliamentary affairs. This time, the word being re-defined is ‘election’.

Like ‘democracy’, it has (or used to have) a meaning. ‘To elect’ is entirely synonymous with ‘to choose’: it requires a minimum of at least two candidates, so that a ‘choice’ can be made. Yet Chris Said is reported to have said he would only consider running for the post if he was the only candidate on the ballot sheet. Which is a bit like me saying: ‘I’ll only ever play football, if I’m the only player on the pitch’. 

Never mind that I’d probably miss the open goal anyway, or die of heart failure within seconds of experiencing that mysterious phenomenon called ‘exercise’. We can all see that the ensuing activity (or lack thereof) could hardly be defined as ‘a game of football’. Certain integral prerequisites would clearly be missing (the possibility of a Gillette sponsorship being the most obvious example). 

It’s the same with Said’s approach to leadership ‘elections’. He doesn’t want to be ‘elected’ PN deputy-leader; he just wants to be directly appointed instead.

And who can blame him? After all, the last time Said faced any real opposition in a two-horse race... he lost. So yes, I can well imagine he would have much preferred to be the sole candidate in that race, too. So much so, that there was even a last-ditch (and obviously unsuccessful) attempt to force out his only contestant in the second round.

But last I looked, the whole point of having democratic structures was not to guarantee the result that only one candidate wants... it was to ensure that whoever gets appointed to a leadership post enjoys majority support within the party as a whole.

The PN even has an internal motto it likes to use on such occasions. Said himself quoted it extensively in his own leadership campaign: ‘No one man is bigger than the party’. 

Strangely, however, Chris Said doesn’t seem to think it applies to himself. When it comes to securing a nice new leadership role (to compensate for the one that democracy failed to deliver)... the opinion of the rest of the party no longer seems to matter at all. In setting that particular condition, Said’s only concern was to secure the result he wanted... regardless whether or not it’s a reflection of the mood among the party’s delegates and card-holding members. 

I’d say that makes him a very great deal ‘bigger than the party’... at least, in his own esteem. But there is clearly a lot more to this abnormal demand than a simple attempt to derail the democratic process. Perhaps I shouldn’t even single Said out so conspicuously, either... after all, he is hardly unique in wanting to engineer an undemocratic result, and then pretend it was some kind of victory for democracy. 

Just to illustrate that point for us, PN leader Adrian Delia countered Said’s offer with conditions of his own.

This is from a report in the Times of Malta: “The same source said the new PN leader was ready to accommodate this request so long as Dr Said returned the favour by ensuring that none of the MPs who backed him for leader contest the post of deputy leader for party affairs. ‘Such a plan would be a good compromise as it would eliminate the possibility of having two deputy leaders from Dr Said’s camp trying to clip the leader’s wings,” sources close to Dr Delia said.”

That second part may even be true, when viewed from Delia’s perspective. But ‘such a plan’ would also bypass anything resembling involvement of the rest of the PN, in a decision to appoint two of its own leaders. It would reduce the democratic process to a backroom deal which takes no account at all of what the party as a whole might have to say in the matter.  

So if this ‘cunning plan’ goes ahead, it will not be just one ‘democratic election’ to be undemocratically subverted to fit a preordained script... but two. Both deputy leaders (for parliamentary and party affairs) respectively will have been chosen simply on the basis of the present leadership’s convenience, and nothing more.

Naturally, I won’t pretend to be dismayed by the broader underlying implications. We all know that ‘democracy’ means more in the dictionary than it does anywhere in the real world of mercenary politics... and there are far better examples of this in practice, than the one outlined above.

"‘Such a plan’ would bypass anything resembling involvement of the rest of the PN, in a decision to appoint two of its own leaders. It would reduce the democratic process to a backroom deal"
No, the thing that intrigues me is how utterly counter-productive this sort of approach really is. One of the reasons Chris Said gave for laying down that condition is that something similar had been demanded (and granted) before. He gave the example of Mario de Marco, who was uncontested for the deputy leadership after losing the bigger race to Simon Busuttil in 2013. 

What Said seems to have overlooked is the effect of that decision on the PN’s subsequent electoral performances. It’s not as though the Busuttil/de Marco/Fenech Adami leadership trio went on to score a string of unprecedented victories, you know. Quite the opposite, in fact: and, with a little healthy dose of hindsight... it’s easy to see why, too.

There is a limit to how far you can tweak the fundamentals of democracy... before democracy eventually gets fed up, and bites you in the bottom. Part of the reason the PN ended up in its present, unenviable plight is its consistent habit of ignoring the will of the people who make up the backbone of that party: the paid-up members, the delegates, and ultimately the Nationalist electorate in its totality. 

Ironically, both Chris Said and Adrian Delia claimed they understood this during the recent leadership election race. In different ways, both promised to challenge a party ‘establishment’ that had caused the PN so much harm. 

From that perspective, I should be surprised to see them both negotiating the terms of their own party establishment... and in so doing, repeating the same mistakes they themselves had earlier vowed to amend.

Yet it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I wonder why...

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