Chronicle of a disaster foretold

You could almost say that both Muscat and Busuttil are unhappy about this situation for another reason: they are unenthused by the prospect of a decision being taken out of their hands

I’m getting the impression that the two party leaders just aren’t enjoying the political game as much as they used to. 

Look at them for a moment will you? I watched Simon Busuttil (very briefly, I have to admit) on ‘Reporter’, and he looked like one of those cartoon characters with a storm cloud permanently hovering over his head. It could be bright and sunny for miles around… yet somehow he succeeded in imparting a feeling of greyness and gloom. He looked uncomfortable, as if making a deliberate effort to studiously ignore something that was getting on his nerves.

Joseph Muscat is looking chirpier, certainly… but not as sprightly as you’d expect, given the trust rating polls and what they reveal about his current standing with the electorate. I can’t put my finger on the change precisely. It’s as though his pate has lost a bit of its former gloss, and now looks less polished. His cheeks are also slightly less hamster-like than they were before: he is slowly acquiring a leaner and hungrier look. 

If I’m reading the signs right, I would say something is troubling him. And I think it’s the same thing that is troubling – to a far greater degree – his opposite number.

It’s the spring hunting referendum. They’re not happy with it. You can tell. They have this look of tired fatalism in their eye… the same look I myself must have had after every single mathematics exam at school: you know, that awful moment when I’d compare my answers to those of the brainiest kid on the school bus. 

‘What do you get for question 4?’ ’63 – it was easy’. ‘Great. I got 467.899. Let’s wait for the result and see who got it right…’.”

Needless to add, it was never me. There on that bus, within a space of an hour from the end of the examination, I already knew I’d failed (again). The long wait for exam results would only be the chronicle of an ‘F’ foretold. There are times in life when you know you’re already beaten.

The same sense of foreboding despair now seems to emanate from Simon Busuttil. Regardless of whether it’s a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ on April 11, he already knows the result will bring him no joy on a personal level. He is in a lose-lose situation… and (let’s face it) it’s not the first time that a referendum had this effect on a political party leader.

Right: by this time you will have seen it posted somewhere that – after a week of weighty reflection and various consultation exercises with sundry experts – Busuttil announced that he will be doing what we all expected him to do anyway, and vote ‘Yes’ to spring hunting. I’m not sure what sort of reaction he expected. It’s hard to say, seeing as his long personal involvement with this issue made any other type of position quite frankly unthinkable. 

Busuttil was a central plank of the argument that first convinced hunters that their spring hunting pastime would be safe from all future attacks. Time and again he has defended the derogation applied by his own government. How, therefore, could he suddenly turn around and vote against something he had helped negotiate and justify himself?

No, as things stand the only choice he had was either to make his ‘Yes’ position public, or not take any position at all. I’ve already said (in my last article, written before his declaration on Saturday) that option B would have paid him far more in the long run. But of course, he chose option A.

Now let’s look at what his choice will translate into when the result of the referendum is known.

Try as I might, I cannot envisage any outcome that would be considered positive for Simon Busuttil or for the Nationalist Party. A ‘Yes’ victory would chime in with his own declared voting intentions – it would be the fruition of his own preference – but he would have very good reasons not to celebrate it, either privately or (even less) publicly. 

Surveys on this subject have repeatedly shown that the concentration of anti-spring hunting voters is much higher within the Nationalist fold than in Labour’s. Busuttil therefore knows that a sizeable chunk of his (actual or intended) support base will be infuriated at a ‘Yes’ result… and they will blame him for encouraging the ‘Yes’ campaign by publicly endorsing it. 

For these reasons alone, he is probably secretly hoping for a ‘No’: which would at least spare him the prospect of becoming the primary target for the ‘No’ campaign’s anger. But while that same segment of his party’s voters would welcome that result with jubilation, they would have no reason to thank the PN for it. It would have been achieved at the expense of the party, not because of it… and this can only diminish Busuttil’s relevance to the one electoral segment he truly needs to claw his way back to in the polls.

The only other possible outcome is an inconclusive result on account of low voter turnout. And this would arguably be even worse for Busuttil than a ‘No’… even if for slightly unfair reasons.

A low turnout would, prima facie, prove that the issue is less central to popular mood than previously supposed. But even if fewer people would be angered (by the result of an election in which fewer people actually voted)… the anger and frustration of those few will be much more intense. It would be the worst form of ‘resolution’ imaginable: spring hunting would go on, not because the country approved it in a referendum… but merely because the country couldn’t be bothered to decide at all.

And who would take the blame for that? The people to whom we normally turn for motivation and inspiration during campaigns. Our political party leaders. So Busuttil would be held responsible for dousing the entire campaign in his own apathy. His bird-loving supporters would feel let down by his lack of energy and drive.

Meanwhile, pretty much all the above considerations also apply to Joseph Muscat: with the important proviso (mentioned above) that the fall-out will be far less extensive in the case of a ‘Yes’ victory. If ‘No’ wins, however, the stakes will be slightly higher. Muscat (like Busuttil) has declared he will not actively campaign. This has evidently already been interpreted as a ‘betrayal’ by hunters, who expected the Prime Minister to give them his full support… as, to be fair to the hunters, Maltese Prime Ministers have hitherto always done.

Muscat also loses in that scenario… and this will explain why he was (and still is) so visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of this referendum.

In fact, you could almost say that both Muscat and Busuttil are unhappy about this situation for another reason: they are unenthused by the prospect of a decision being taken out of their hands. This applies to all other referenda, too. And if you look back at our history of such democratic exercises – the grand total of five referenda in 60 years – you will notice that all of them were pretty disastrous in one way or another.

The 1955 Integration referendum was boycotted by the Nationalists and opposed by the Church. The turnout was low enough to invalidate the exercise by today’s standards… though (as with the later EU referendum) there was no legal obligation of 50%+1 in 1955. In any case, Integration went on to fail for other reasons, which I am sure some dedicated political analyst will explain in the comments below. Certainly, the referendum cannot be described as ‘conclusive’.

The Independence referendum was overshadowed by the 1960 excommunication edict on Mintoff and the Labour Party executive. Its result was accepted as legally binding, but some people still argue today that the pressures on the electorate at the time would have invalidated the outcome in any other democracy.

The EU referendum, in the end, proved fundamentally inconclusive because both sides interpreted the result differently. This time it was a Labour leader, Alfred Sant, who was uncomfortable with the vote… suggesting that both parties are equally suspicious of direct democracy. If the ‘Yes’ went on to carry the day, it was only because of subsequent confirmation by the 2004 election: so the referendum, in itself, did not settle the matter.

As things stand, the only referendum which proved unequivocally conclusive was the one on divorce in 2011. But it still spelt disaster for the Nationalist Party, which was (once again) deeply troubled by the whole idea to begin with. The PN actively campaigned for a ‘No’; and apart from being publicly contradicted by the electorate (never a good thing, if you’re a political party) its unexpected defeat also forced it into an identity crisis from which it has yet to fully emerge. 

That the then Prime Minister went on to vote against divorce (and by extension, the referendum result) in parliament… a symbolic but ultimately inconsequential gesture of defiance – only confirmed how very deep-rooted this distrust of direct democracy really is among Maltese politicians.

Then as now, however, the issue forced the PN into a lose-lose situation, along almost identical lines to its analogous circumstances today. So if you take everything into consideration – all the past infelicities involving referenda, all the efforts to upstage results, and all the painful realisations such referenda have entailed for political parties – it all points in one direction.

‘Direct democracy’ is a game our two political parties are not very good at. That’s why they look so unhappy playing it. 

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