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[ANALYSIS] The Salvu Mallia paradox
Salvu Mallia was introduced by Simon Busuttil as a role model for switchers and floaters. But what does his cocktail of social liberalism and Muscatophobia, say about the PN’s identity in 2017?
12 January 2017, 7:50am
Probably this has been happening in all elections since the 1976 poll when a segment of secular and left-leaning voters parted their ways with Dom Mintoff’s brand of authoritarian socialism, and have remained sceptical of Labour’s strongmen ever since.
The conservative mark of identity
What contained liberals in the PN despite its latent conservatism was a strong narrative based on democratisation in the 1980s and Europeanisation in the 1990s and early noughties.
It was the breakdown and exhaustion of this narrative which opened the liberal floodgates for Muscat in 2013. In the absence of a forward-looking project the PN signed its death sentence by entrenching conservatism as a mark of identity in the Lawrence Gonzi years, starting with the EU referendum of 2004, which saw the PN singling out AD for its alliance with the pro choice Greens.
Truly Eddie Fenech Adami was as much a conservative as Lawrence Gonzi, but social liberals could still feel at home as the party (which harboured within it left-leaning exponents like Fr Peter Serracino Inglott) as this was defined by other characteristics and traits.
On a superficial level, Mallia presented Simon Busuttil with a symbolic opportunity: that of reaffirming two principles, which are that the majority of the party remains against abortion and euthanasia but candidates running under its banner are free to express a diversity of opinions on moral issues. After all in most European parties –especially in centrist parties – one finds a plurality of opinions on moral issues. This would have sent a message that social conservatism is not the party’s mark of identity and that people holding pro choice views are not monsters.
As often happens, Busuttil went mid-way, rightly falling short of censoring Mallia while reaffirming the conservative mark of identity by turning the tables on Muscat and accusing him of being the one who intends to introduce abortion, thus reminding liberals that change in social mores can only come through Labour.
For while Labour has not shown any inclination to introduce abortion and contains within it extremely conservative elements who were willing to ride on the Gift of Life bandwagon to denigrate Mallia, it does have a vocal liberal wing which is constantly pushing the boundaries on civil liberties.
The end result is that social liberals have been reminded that there can be no debate on euthanasia (let alone abortion) under Busuttil – thus leaving some space for Muscat to manoeuvre on the far less controversial issue of euthanasia – and that extreme conservatives are still disappointed that Mallia is a PN candidate.
What does the PN stand for?
But on a deeper level the problem with Simon Busuttil’s PN is defining its identity. And here is where people like Salvu Mallia pose the most serious difficulty for the PN. For the common glue cementing any coalition against Muscat led by Busuttil, is antagonism and animosity towards the Muscat government and not a cohesive alternative platform for an alternative and prosperous Malta. This is no easy task, especially in a context of a government constantly failing on good governance but riding high on a strong economy.
Mallia is articulating this narrative by demonstrating the zeal of a convert who goes to extremes like comparing Muscat to Adolf Hitler to prove a legitimate point that Muscat tends to deflect pressure from his terrible record on good governance by coming up with red herrings in the civil liberties camp and that economic growth is no insurance against creeping authoritarianism.
In fact this exposes another problem: people such as Mallia have joined the PN as individuals not as the result of an organic development of an internal debate or as part of a coalition between organised movements or parties. Their only loyalty is towards the leader. In this sense Mallia is not being schooled in a political culture, where one learns that comparisons with Hitler irk anyone with a historical sensitivity.
It may well have been bizarre to see the European Socialist Party, which includes the anti immigrant Slovak PM Robert Fico in its ranks, condemning the statement made by a minor candidate of a party in the smallest member state, but in European politics it is basic not to compare the venal sins of your adversary to the man responsible for genocide and the extermination of millions.
In the leader’s orbit
Surely Busuttil may well be aping Muscat in roping in people from outside the party’s orbit. The kind of leadership which sees star candidates orbiting around the party leader, did work well for Muscat who reined elements (some of them toxic) from the PN’s orbit before 2013. But Muscat had one important advantage which Busuttil does not have: that of not being the underdog.
As the underdog Busuttil is not attracting people who can be reined in with the promise of a government post in a future government but a few strongly opinionated individuals who have nothing to lose. In persons like Mallia, the electorate may see a degree of authenticity but such persons’ zeal may well backfire with middle of the road voters. Let’s not forget that many Nationalist voters grew up in awe of a Nationalist government which was credited for bringing stability to the country, despite underlying problems related to good governance.
The anti-establishment candidate in the PN?
Mallia’s message may resonate with a category of angry anti establishment voters but these may well be outside the PN’s reach simply because of its track record in government.
The PN may hope that some of these voters may be attracted by Mallia’s invective not just against Muscat but against PN politicians who question his antics. In this way Mallia himself may have the appeal of a Maltese version of Italian comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo. Mallia may well bring benefits to the PN by soliciting the interest of voters who would never bring themselves to vote for any of the other PN candidates but could still vote for Mallia as a protest against the system. The fact that Mallia solicits such a strong response from Labour, enough to warrant lobbying the European Socialists to condemn him, simply shows that he is feared by Labour and that his message does strike a chord with a number of voters.
But Mallia also undermines cohesion in a party which is still recovering from the splits created by backbenchers like Franco Debono and Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in the last Gonzi administration.
Moreover if the PN does silence Mallia, it risks sending a message to the anti establishment voters it wants to win over, that Busuttil is more of the same. For Busuttil has invested too much political capital in Mallia to ditch him now. In this way rather than cultivating Mallia into an asset – as a charismatic and magnetic personality who comes across as someone motivated by ideals rather than the promise of a ‘position of trust’ – the PN risks turning him into an albatross.
A polarised climate
Surely by retaining Konrad Mizzi in his government despite having been caught red handed opening a company in Panama, Muscat has himself contributed his fair share to an inevitable backlash and extreme distrust among a section of the electorate; which has become prone to believing conspiracies which turn Muscat into a caricature which other more moderate voters find hard to believe.
Perversely Muscat may benefit from such a radicalisation, which reinforces his credentials as a political moderate confronting a motley crew of disjointed extremists. In reality the PN has plenty of rational arguments to confront Muscat for his excesses but cannot resist the temptation of going overboard in a bid to galvanise core voters.
One year before the election, Busuttil needs to recalibrate his party; finding a balance between principled opposition and the promise of a constructive change based on a promise of good governance.
Rather than acting as Busuttil’s Doberman, people like Mallia may well have been more suited to act as guarantees for this promise. The diversity of views they bring to the party should be welcomed as an injection of debate rather than stifled. For if Mallia’s candidature is aimed at convincing floaters and switchers and not at diehard Nationalists or limited in appeal to angry voters, he is clearly using the wrong tone while raising the right issues.
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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