When the troika overwhelmed public life, patriarchal secular leaders were endowed with pseudo-religious traits.
Post-colonial Malta was ruled by a powerful troika made up of two political parties and the Church. Throughout the decades some people were grievously harmed whenever one side bolted to the right, another to the left, while the third adamantly stamped its hooves resisting efforts to move ahead.
Maltese society changed dramatically between the two Gonzis, the Monsignor and the Prime Minister. However, on many levels we are now starting to feel the impact of Europeanization processes. Whether we like it or not, this society is now walking on shifting sands and the traditional set-ups were derailed.
This week many celebrated Dom Mintoff's 96th birthday. If we employ current online political banter, we can say that he was born before the advent of radio and relinquished the leadership even before the spread of the internet. This past year, his life was marked by hospital visits and a film production entitled Dear Dom which portrayed him as a negotiator and a strongman but cunningly chose to ignore his role as a social reformer. Dom Mintoff earned divine connotations as Salvatur ta' Malta (Malta's Saviour) when he established a welfare state that lifted up his working class support-base. When he left the helm of his party, some wanted a leader able to step into his shoes; it actually took years for grassroots supporters to accept they needed a leader able to step out of his shadow.
Once upon a time, when the troika overwhelmed public life, patriarchal secular leaders were endowed with pseudo-religious traits that were also employed after the rise of Dr Edward Fenech Adami. "Eddie" became PN leader merely a yearly before Britain's Margaret Thatcher won her first election; that is, when Saatchi and Saatchi actually originated the first "Labour Won't Work" billboard.
He soon achieved virtual martyrdom when his family home was vandalised in a series of political incidents. He was entrenched as a national hero when he delivered his supporters from 16 years of Labour rule.
Since we have now become billboard crazy, we must mention the close-up portrait of the silver-haired leader that was put up in the 1990s. Surrounded by a clear blue sky, his picture was almost reminiscent of holy pictures portraying God the Father. Fenech Adami's mission became truly apostolic when barely ten years ago he proclaimed the spread of the Christian message to be among Malta's missions within the enlarged European Union. He then proceeded to make an unsuccessful bid to entrench Christianity in the European Constitutional Treaty. His departure from the helm of PN coincided with secularization pressures that stemmed from his own party ranks and so his successor did not merely have to fill the void left by this larger than life figure, but also he had to cope with these new tensions.
In the past it was normal to bestow idealised leaders with father-figure qualities. Patriarchal parties were extended families and often behaved like warring tribes. The public facade of these families was that of a harmonious unit, where dirty linen was washed behind closed doors. Adherents had a very solid sense of belonging as their group was deemed to safeguard their interests in a harsh milieu characterised by a dearth of opportunities. All this has been changing.
And then there is the Church. In the past, its power was such that it led to bitter politico-religious battles each time secular leaders gained more political power; in the 1920s through autonomous government and in the 1960s with Independence. Since then social transformations have eroded some of Church's power to an extent that many people claim they are believers, but they may not feel attached to the institution. Take the sharp decline in mass attendance. In my hometown, St Paul's Bay, attendees amount to merely 36% and we can only guess their age groups.
Let's not make it out to be as if the Curia did not see this coming. Just before the EU referendum, the former bishops prohibited members of the clergy from participating in the campaign as they feared EU membership would hasten the encroachment of liberal European views on matters like divorce, homosexuality and IVF and that this would precipitate the Church's decline. There are great unresolved tensions between modernists and traditionalists within the Church structures. The rift between the bishops and the priests regarding the IVF pastoral letter was just one more indication.
While the troika still commands significant political clout, we are witnessing the spread of liberal aspirations, based on democratic values and a human rights morality. Secularisation in a place like Malta does not merely entail a decline of religious influence but also a decline of ideologically-committed institutions.
As a result my hometown does not merely have the lowest mass attendance in the whole country but it experiences political alienation and chronic voter absenteeism. Secularisation and laicisation have reached Malta rather late but they are here. Organisations cannot play the ostrich game; if they wish to survive they must adapt.
It is commonly acknowledged that our polarised political system is not merely divisive, but has stifled the participation of women and minority groups and it does not leave much room for the growth of smaller movements.
Yet, our society is becoming more fragmented and individualistic, and along the years the bigger parties had to become hybrid as they needed to appeal to fluid constituencies. A variety of voices and experiences may bring contradictory demands and new challenges for leaders. The old leadership styles are now obsolete. Whereas in the past, the electoral manifestos were deemed to contain empty promises; in contemporary politics an agreed common programme provides the gel that binds political groups together. Leaders can be winners only when they find ways to ensure that an interplay of various dialectical tensions lead to positive outcomes.
This year's events confirmed that within our traditional structures "obedience is no longer a virtue," a declaration first made in 1965 by Don Lorenzo Milani, an Italian priest.
These days nonconformist individuals have unlimited means to disseminate their views and it is next to impossible for old institutions to silence dissenters. Individuals may now influence public debates through the social media, where we can even observe a rise in the number of new opinion leaders who advocate irreverent positions towards the traditional power-holders.
While the old troika still has professional setups aimed to manage public perceptions, people are becoming better equipped to unpack spin tactics. Spin strategies were not merely rendered transparent in the recent revelations by political insiders but increasingly editors employ a name-and-shame approach towards those political players who attempt to pull their strings.
This silly season has shown us that within the hegemonic structures some are seeking to reinforce or renegotiate the status quo and yet there are also individuals who are seeking renewal. Sceptics tend to resonate Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's very telling observation about human nature: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same". However, the current state of affairs indicates that in Malta it is high time we moved on.
Carmen Sammut is a University of Malta academic and chairperson of Labour think-tank Ideat.