Political giant, ruthless bully, charmer...

At the risk of being accused of using a trite cliché, Dom Mintoff’s passing away last Monday can only be seen from a historical viewpoint as the end of an era.

Maltese political history indicates that nothing of real political importance happened in Malta in the second half of the twentieth century without Mintoff's input - whether hidden or overt - being part of the equation.

Although I was born and brought up in a traditionally Nationalist family, from a very young age I followed his political odyssey that saw him take over the MLP leadership after unseating his predecessor Pawlu Boffa in a classic coup that exposed his ruthlessness and the machismo that endeared him to so many of his followers... only to end up by unseating his successor, Alfred Sant, from the premiership.

During the 1958-62 political interlude when Malta was ruled directly from the colonial office in London and Mintoff was waging what I perceived as being a dual battle against the British and the Church, as a young student I used to go to many of his public meetings during which his skills of oratory mesmerised his audience. It was much later that I realised that the British colonialists and the Church had made the most unholy of alliances and Mintoff was actually fighting only one enemy: the 'status quo' which had suited both the British and the Maltese Curia for so long.

Irrespective of whether one agreed with what he used to say or not, there was no one as talented as him when it came to putting across one's point of view to the less educated section of the population. At times he was exceedingly crude and vulgar, but his message was always understood.

Between 1962 and 1971, Mintoff stood his ground, refusing to accept the Independence Constitution but contesting the elections because he knew - and believed - that only an electoral victory would give him the right to govern. In the 1971 election, Mintoff played the comparison card with which his legendary dynamism was contrasted with the apparent laid back laissez faire of Borg Olivier.

I remember going to both MLP meetings in large squares and to PN rallies generally in enclosed theatres: the difference between the methods of the two leaders was too palpable not to have had an effect on the voters who in their majority chose Labour, even though by a relatively slight difference. When Mintoff went to the Governor-General to be sworn in as Prime Minister, a large crowd of his supporters gathered in front of the Palace in Valletta. In typical style, as soon as he got out of the Palace he slammed the bonnet of his car with his fist, shouting at everybody to go to work just as he was going to do.

Yet, it was his green light to the behaviour of some of his supporters in those early days that eventually led to the institutionalisation of thuggery and violence as a political tool in the hands of his government - a tactic that went horribly out of hand and did his cause much more harm than any positive effect he could have gained from his temporary political victories.

The earthquake that followed in the first days and weeks of his government has remained unparalleled in our political history. The new wind that blew across Malta was a hurricane that swept away anything in its path, whether it was the remnants of the past that Malta did not need anymore or the young saplings that had been so carefully planted after Malta became independent: these needed care and protection but got lost in the storm. He used to say he had a queue of battles to be waged. Some were crucial for the country; others were just chips on his shoulders that provoked him to take unnecessary,  vindictive actions.

Ironically, the ruthlessness that emanated from the 1971 MLP victory in time had to lead to the fossilisation of the Labour Party and to the radical change within the PN that was tantamount to its being re-founded. For had Mintoff not won the 1971 election, the PN would never have become the main political force that it has been since the eighties.

Mintoff's first post-independence administration (1972-1976) shook Malta to the roots. When I managed to make it to parliament in October 1976, Mintoff was at his peak: his speeches in parliament held his MPs spellbound, whether boasting about his achievements or rubbishing the opposition or anybody with whom he disagreed.

Towards the end of his second administration after independence (1977-1981) his momentum and resolve started to run out. He still plodded on, but he slowly became perceived as an old weary warrior who does not know when to opt for peace. By that time the PN had reorganised itself under its then new leader, Eddie Fenech Adami, who was the rising star of Maltese politics. The turning point was probably the day when Mintoffian thugs ransacked Fenech Adami's home and attacked his family. The PN never looked back and for the first time ever, attendance at PN meetings outnumbered that at Labour meetings.

Mintoff probably considered the 1981 perverse election result as his biggest defeat. He was not happy with what had happened and realised that it did not make sense for his party to have more seats than the party that got more votes. However, he was caught in the vortex of power that had taken hold of his party and his colleagues were not ready to give up power: they were prepared to keep on gerrymandering electoral districts and hold on to power for ever.

He passed on his leadership mantle to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and later negotiated a tacit agreement with the PN in Opposition behind the back of the MLP: in an incredible speech in parliament on 11 December 1986 he delivered the coup de grace, 'persuading' the Labour Parliamentary majority to accept a change in the constitution that opened the way for the first Fenech Adami administration in 1987.

And when Labour regained power in 1986 under the leadership of Alfred Sant, he inexplicably engineered his own leader's downfall. I never believed that Dom Mintoff brought down Alfred Sant because he did not like the Cottonera project but with the passing away of Guido de Marco, the real story behind that historical event will probably never be told.

I came to know him better and on a more personal level after I became a minister and later, when I was chairman of the Water Services Corporation. I was surprised to realise that the man was as much of a charmer as he was a ruthless bully. His 'persona' when talking to you at an intimate level was completely different from the loud, brash character spouting vulgarities and spewing venom from the back of some truck in a Labour Party meeting or during some interminable speech in parliament. I became aware of that positive streak in his character that had probably attracted so many to him and who then followed him blindly, despite what can only be termed as his dark side.

He will, of course, remain an enigma: he was certainly a brilliant politician whose major fault was that he could not resist acting in the most vulgar and contemptuous of manners when confronted with anyone disagreeing with him.

May he rest in peace.

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Luke Camilleri
Dr Falzon, brought up in a traditionally Nationalist family, from a very young age , mentioned the passing of leadership mantle to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici But THERE SEEMS TO BE A BIGLAPSUS which the P.N . including Dr. Falzon ALWAYS FAIL TO MENTION: The passing of leadership mantle- FROM Dr. Gorg Borg Olivier to Eddie ! Was it "The passing of leadership mantle" or was there a plot to overthrow GBO organised by none other than Eddie sive Edward Fenech Adami? Tell us about it Dr. Falzon! "