Carmel Cacopardo and the Greens: Are they swimming against the tide?

Will Carmel Cacopardo’s distinctive style compensate for an obvious lack of charisma and power to inspire, and what does his elevation to party leader say about the party’s ability to regenerate itself?

james
James Debono
26 September 2017, 8:00am
From left: Arnold Cassola, Carmel Cacopardo and secretary general Ralph Cassar
From left: Arnold Cassola, Carmel Cacopardo and secretary general Ralph Cassar
In a political landscape dominated by more charismatic and messianic figures, the 62-year-old Carmel Cacopardo stands out as a scruffier character with a  reputation for zealous rectitude – his bushy eyebrows symbolic of his disdain for image.

A folk hero in the 1980s for taking a stand against Labour minister Lorry Sant’s antics, he was fired from the Works Department for his articles in the PN’s daily, a dismissal which a court found was in breach of the law. Between 1990 and 1997 he occupied various posts in the PN, as information secretary, and then deputy secretary general to Austin Gatt and finally president of the party’s administrative council.   

But he failed to leave a distinctive mark. He fought his battles internally at a time when he did not question in public the PN’s track record on governance and environmental issues.

He unsuccessfully contested the 1987, 1992 and 1996 elections on behalf of the PN, and then supported John Dalli’s bid for the PN leadership.

He returned to the limelight as a civil servant known for his zeal in tormenting Planning Authority officials as investigation officer for the planning ombudsman Joe Falzon. He earned the enmity of a former political ally, environment minister George Pullicino, with whom he had worked closely in the PN’s youth movement, which Cacopardo led for some time. The bad blood and Lawrence Gonzi’s refusal to even pen a foreword for a book he was writing on eco taxation, may have been a major factor in Cacopardo’s decision to join the Greens.  

He resigned from the PN in January 2008, citing the way he was treated for investigating abuse in the PA while others were rewarded for wrongdoing. When he joined Alternattiva Demokratika in 2008, his PN past was a distant memory.

 

Small is beautiful: the Green Party takes shape with Wenzu Mintoff, the former labour whip, taking the party's helm in 1989, with Toni Abela, also then having left labour, by his side. Abela rejoined Labour and became deputy leader. Both Mintoff and Abela are today judges
Small is beautiful: the Green Party takes shape with Wenzu Mintoff, the former labour whip, taking the party's helm in 1989, with Toni Abela, also then having left labour, by his side. Abela rejoined Labour and became deputy leader. Both Mintoff and Abela are today judges
Harry Vassallo is flanked by carmel Cacopardo, in 2008, having just joined AD
Harry Vassallo is flanked by carmel Cacopardo, in 2008, having just joined AD
A new generation cut short, with Michael Briguglio taking the party to their highest ever vote share in 2013, before resigning and paving the way for Arnold Cassola to once again take the party chairmanship
A new generation cut short, with Michael Briguglio taking the party to their highest ever vote share in 2013, before resigning and paving the way for Arnold Cassola to once again take the party chairmanship
Fitting in AD’s strait jacket

Cacopardo will be the first AD leader to have been schooled in the Nationalist Party’s stable: AD’s first leader, Wenzu Mintoff, hailed from Labour, but Harry Vassallo, Arnold Cassola and Michael Briguglio hailed from civil society NGOs.  

Yet his stance on issues dear to the greens, such as gay marriage, was at best reluctant, having pushed for a more moderate line before the 2013 election which put him at odds with Briguglio, who pushed AD to adopt more radical positions.

Gay marriage is now history, and Labour is pushing new frontiers on drug liberalisation and IVF, which means AD has little space to project itself as the liberal choice. Even civil society and to some extent the PN has moved in AD’s good governance and environmental territory.

Cacopardo seems to have recognised the limited space AD has for manouver arguing that the time is ripe for a discussion on abortion, a stance which also serves to distinguish AD from the more conservative PD.

In many ways Cacopardo will have to convince voters that AD is not only more authentic but also more effective in pushing its agenda forward. Voters are not only interested in which party is the purest, but also in who is best placed to bring about concrete changes.

And in this AD is not just competing with other political parties but also with civil society movements who are able to bring about change through sheer public mobilisation.

The coalition dilemma

Cacopardo’s reluctance to join a coalition with the PN, despite calls from its former leader, Michael Briguglio, to do so in the wake of Panamagate in the last general election, may have saved the party from being on the losing side.

But it also came at a big cost, with AD losing half its 2013 voters, gaining a miserly 0.8% of the vote. Cacopardo himself had agreed to a coalition with the PN as long as it had a common name and platform, something which was unacceptable for the PN from day one. The PN had made it abundantly clear that it would have never accepted contesting the election under any name but theirs. 

Some may see this as testimony of Cacopardo and Cassola’s unwavering character, but others saw this unwillingness to compromise as a weakness. The Democratic Party’s ability to snatch two seats thanks to its coalition with the PN made AD’s result pill harder to swallow. AD’s refusal may well have been a political calculation based on the likelihood of a Labour victory.

But what is sure is that despite the magnitude of the Panama scandal, AD failed in its declared strategy of winning over PL voters disgusted by corruption and unwilling to cross over to the PN-led Forza Nazzjonali. It left AD in the same place as before, that of eternally competing with the PN for votes.

Arnold Cassola resigned after taking stock of the result, but Cacopardo immediately made himself available for the post as long as no other viable alternative emerged. In some ways, like Cassola in 2013 (after Briguglio’s resignation) Cacopardo may well have taken a post nobody wanted to take.

And that raises questions on the inability of the party to regenerate itself with new members with leadership abilities.

Way past its expiry date?

Where does all this leave AD? With Cacopardo at the helm, one may expect AD to become bellicose in its relation with both major parties, probably reserving a greater dose of animosity towards the Democratic Party, which it may view more as a rival than a potential ally.   By uncharacteristically advocating an open discussion on abortion-a stance which contrasts with his past reluctance to take on issues like gay marriage, Cacopardo has broken a taboo which may be indicative of the party’s search for a more radical identity which may compliment a more left wing perspective on economic and social issues.

Cacopardo’s style and approach on their own reinforce a distinction between AD and other parties at a time when other parties have opted for more charismatic figures. He may be seen as a “what you see is what you get” authentic figure in a world of made-up politicians.

But whether this would be inspirational for potential new members is a completely different matter. In this way he may emulate the new leader of the UK Liberal Democrats: Vince Cable, who has pledged to fight “the irrational cult of youth” and to reflect the country’s “more sober mood”.  

Judging from the party’s failure to renew itself in the past five years during which he served as deputy chairman, it remains doubtful whether Cacopardo is best placed to attract a new generation of activists who would eventually replace the older generation. 

A more pragmatic side to Cacopardo comes across in his blogs as an astute political analysts. As someone who likes playing the political game he may try to exploit the weaknesses faced by a new PN leadership following a bitter power struggle which saw the party turning on itself. He may even see some space for growth among Labour-inclined voters in view of Muscat’s promised departure before the next election.  

The greatest question he faces is whether AD is simply surviving by ignoring the obvious signs pointing at its inevitable demise, or whether it can rise again.  

MEP and local elections next year may give a definitive answer. Failing in the favourable circumstances of elections where the government of the country is not at stake, may well be the final nail in the coffin. Yet just as AD benefitted from the aftermath of the PN’s bitter contest in 2003 in the subsequent 2004 MEP elections, it may well find a more favourable terrain this time round, even if it may find competition from the PD and less good will among PN-leaning voters than Cassola enjoyed a year after the EU referendum.

If AD lives for another day, it may well end up with more negotiating power on the coalition table next time round. But that would depend on the PN not being strong enough to go it alone, a very likely prospect considering declarations of both PN leadership contenders on the undesirability of continuing the party’s coalition with the PD beyond this legislature.

 

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...