One district, to end all districts...

Just as they disagreed with Robert Abela, when he ignored district pressures, and acted on his own political calculations; and just as they disagreed with Bernard Grech, for… um… not doing exactly the same thing…

Look: I know it’s naive of me to keep expecting ‘consistency’ from Maltese politics… but I can’t help it, really. My brain is wired up that way. It wants there to be a logical connection in all the things that it looks at; and when there isn’t any…

Well, it’s a bit like people who see Jesus on pieces of burnt toast… or ‘alien faces’ in rock formations on the surface of Mars. There is an element of self-deception involved: my brain tries to hammer out the missing connection anyway.

But when it comes looking for logical thought-processes in Maltese political situations… to be honest, I would have more luck with all the toasted Jesuses and ancient Martian monuments put together. There simply never is any consistency, of any kind, anywhere to be seen…

Take, for instance, two recent incidents (which should, by rights, have been viewed as parallels of each other). The first was Prime Minister’s political chess-board antics last week: which resulted in Gavin Gulia’s speedy resignation from Parliament, to make way for newly co-opted Oliver Scicluna.

The second, Opposition leader Bernard Grech’s abortive attempt to reshuffle his shadow Cabinet: where his efforts to inject ‘new blood’ (very loosely speaking) into an ageing Shadow Cabinet were met with resistance... and he ended up being forced to retain most of the candidates he was trying to oust.

Ok, there are admittedly some differences… starting with the fact that Gulia’s seat in Parliament had been bequeathed to him by the electoral system; and as such, it represented a (somewhat indirect) expression of ‘the people’s will’.

The same, however, cannot be said for Cabinet positions: ‘shadowy’ or otherwise. Those decisions ultimately rest with the party leader alone.

But on another level, they are both cases where the ‘leader’ – of a party, or Parliamentary Group – attempted to impose his own will onto proceedings. In Abela’s case, my guess is that he wanted to ensure he had the ‘right’ team in place (harsh as this may have been towards Gavin) in time for the next election… which cannot be more than around 18 months away.

And his decision is likely to have pissed off certain sectors of his own party’s support-base: starting with Gulia’s constituents on the seventh district.

As for Bernard Grech, there can be no real doubt of his intentions. He, too, wanted to assemble the ‘right team’, to contest an election where the PN is clearly the underdog. And – if I say so myself – his original choices were far more politically astute than the ones he ended up actually making. (I’m even willing to place a small bet that at least one – maybe two, possibly three – of the PN’s ‘new’ shadow cabinet will go on to lose their seat at the next election. Any takers?)

But let’s not get side-tracked by the outcome. The bottom line is that one of those two party leaders defied the will of party constituents, by imposing an up-and-coming candidate of his own choice (at the expense of a more popular one, at district level)… and he got pilloried for it.

The other did the precise opposite: i.e., he bowed to pressure – which also came, indirectly, from district level – and retained existing candidates, at the expense of more up-and-coming ones… and oh, look. What a surprise. Bernard Grech got pilloried for his decision, too…

Hello? Guys? I mean, come on. Is it so very difficult to use the same yardstick on two entirely analogous political situations? Either Robert Abela was right to stick to his guns: in which case, Bernard Grech was wrong to succumb to pressure… or it’s the other way around. There is simply no interpretation which places them as either both right, or both wrong. (Again, it’s a little like the toast image I mentioned earlier: it either really is a ‘Divine Manifestation of the Risen Lord’… or else, just a slice of burnt toast. It can’t exactly be both at once, can it?)

Now: I’ve already let slip that I consider Grech’s decision to have been ‘wrong’… at least, in the sense that he would have been politically far better off by making some real changes to his core electoral line-up. But does it follow – as it should, if we are going to be consistent in our approach – that Abela was ‘right’ to sacrifice Gavin Gulia for Oliver Scicluna?

Well, that depends on whether we’re ready to view the situation from Abela’s perspective, instead of our own. On top of that, it also depends on whether we agree with Abela’s political assessment of the two candidates concerned.

Is Oliver Scicluna worth any more, in political terms, than Gavin Gulia? To be honest, I don’t know enough about the former to make any assessment of my own.

But I am fairly certain that, when it come to the Prime Minister actually deciding, the primary consideration with Gavin Gulia would have been his electoral strength at district level. And in the end, Abela evidently concluded that the possibility of losing at least some of that support – and incurring all the added criticism to boot – was worth the exchange.

Already, then – just by looking at it from Abela’s viewpoint; and without even passing judgment on his actions – a certain fundamental problem with Maltese politics comes swimming into view. And once again (not by coincidence) it is the same problem Bernard Grech found himself facing, when similarly trying to break away from the traditional political mould.

Simply put, it is that Malta is carved up into 13 electoral districts… which (coupled with our lax regulations concerning ‘trading in influence’) also double up as political power-houses – if not feudal fiefdoms – for the individual candidates who contest them: some of whom will invariably use that power to bully and blackmail their own party, when the time comes...

Apart from the obvious threat this poses to the democratic process: the power itself is often ill-gotten. To be fair to Gavin Gulia, I’m not at all sure any of this applies to him personally (then again, I have never voted on his district: so how would I know?); but it is not exactly a secret that the influence wielded – by certain candidates, on certain districts – is also tied to our national tendency to ‘buy’ electoral support with ‘favours’.

We have all heard stories about prospective candidates promising ‘solutions’ to all their constituents’ problems – ranging from free domestic appliances, to guaranteed jobs for relatives, to fixing the drains on a particular street… and we all receive flyers and brochures at home, come election-time, with offers of hampers, mobile phone chargers, candlelit dinners for two, tickets for a Hamilton Travel cruise in the Adriatic… or raffles to win a free car… all there for the taking: just by attending a coffee morning, a Bingo Night, or a wine and pizza party at Montekristo Estates…

It’s a meat market, and we all know it. And it is also a direct, net contributor to the culture of political-backscratching that we all like to complain about so much… except, of course, when we ourselves come in need of a few political ‘favours’ here and there. (Let’s face it: we could all use a moratorium on utility bills every five years or so. And we all know that nobody would ever come and fill in that pothole down the road… you know, the one that’s already cost you two tyres year, and maybe a broken axle… if there wasn’t an election campaign going on…).

And while it may not have been their actual intention, it was this same culture that both Robert Abela and Bernard Grech tried (only one of them successfully) to challenge, with their respective political chess-moves this past week. Abela, by replacing an established, popular candidate with a political newbie – raising district-level ire in the process;

And Grech, by attempting to tone down certain candidates’ district power-bases, in favour of less widely-known faces.

So the way I see it, at least… yes, you could say that they were both ‘right’ (in the intention, anyway… though not in the execution). That culture needs to be challenged.

Bernard Grech’s case alone illustrates the sheer danger our district system poses to the run of democratic play: it forced the Opposition leader to retain a tired, already-defeated team in place… not because they strengthen his chances of winning the election (quite the opposite, in fact)… but because, in our political system, the individual power-structure of a single candidate takes precedence over all other considerations: including the interest of the party as a whole.

Conversely, the anger reportedly felt among Gulia’s constituents points towards (no offence to Gavin himself) the corrosive effect this system has on the electorate as a whole. After all, not everyone is equally repulsed by the same culture of favours and nepotism… indeed, many among us openly defend it; and some even end up arguing in its favour, without even realising.

Nor would it be an exaggeration to say that, for others again, it may even provide a desperately-needed life-line. For while the culture itself may be reprehensible… some of those ‘favours’ are indeed necessary. There are undoubtedly people out there somewhere, who have no realistic survival prospects at all: not without a friendly MP, from the same town, to provide a little ‘assistance’ every now and again.

So if, say, I were to end this article as I originally intended: i.e., with an argument in favour of ‘one district, to end them all’: i.e., abolishing Malta’s district system altogether, and replacing it with Malta and Gozo as a single district, contested on party tickets (as opposed to lists of individual candidates – so that there wouldn’t even be the possibility of rising to power through ‘corrupt practices’ and district level – my gut feeling tells me 90% of readers would violently disagree.

Just as they disagreed with Robert Abela, when he ignored district pressures, and acted on his own political calculations; and just as they disagreed with Bernard Grech, for… um… not doing exactly the same thing…