Why not just put those six seats up for sale?

In all the years I’ve been following Maltese politics – and I voted for the first time in 1992 – I don’t ever recall such a glaring mismatch in financial muscle-power before an election

Nationalist MEP candidate Peter Agius has just taken the initiative to publicly declare his campaign expenses to date: something he was under no obligation to do, as Malta’s electoral law only compels election candidates to declare their expenses after the vote is taken.

There is a perfectly reasonable, practical reason for that, by the way. With a week and a half still to go, Agius’s own campaign expenses may yet increase further in the run-up to election day. So, too, will ‘unpaid’ elements such as the man-hours put in by voluntary helpers – which Agius also includes in his breakdown (along with all the fruit and veg he received from farmers), despite there being absolutely no provision to this effect in the law.

From a transparency perspective, I’d call that ‘douze points’ for Peter Agius. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus only on the amount. Agius’s campaign has so far set him back by around €26,500; and for reasons already outlined, that has to be regarded as a tentative and at best conservative estimate of the final bill. Moreover, it only applies to one candidate’s private expenses: not to the Nationalist (or any other) Party’s campaign as a whole.

Meanwhile, I can’t claim to have followed Agius’s campaign very closely: but from what I’ve seen, most of it has been conducted through printed leaflets, and online ads. Now: I have a rough idea of the costs involved in printing (less so when it comes to online advertising); but I also know that these not-insignificant expenses simply peter (ahem) to nothing, when compared to the cost of running a television campaign.

So not only is Agius’s declaration of expenses conservative by the standards of a single MEP; it probably amounts to only a small fraction of what the two larger parties spend on every election.

All the same, however: €26,500 is a lot of money. It works out as the down-payment on a property worth over a quarter of a million euros. And let’s face it: if you can afford to blow €26,500 on an election campaign, you’d probably also manage the monthly instalments on that €265,000 bank loan…

Out of curiosity: how many of you out there can afford to spend that kind of money, even on a property (i.e, an investment)… still less on a risky political venture with absolutely no guarantee of success – or even the probability of success, unless you’re one of the front-runners?

Yet, placed in the context of the larger parties’ expenses, that is but the entry-level financial barrier to political representation in Malta today.

The only decipherable message seems to be: do not even think of venturing into the political arena, unless you are loaded enough to comfortably afford a cosy townhouse – possibly with a small garden, or space for a pool – somewhere like Gudja or Hal Safi (note: until a few years ago, I’d have said a Sliema seafront apartment, or a converted palazzo in Lija or Attard. But alas, times have changed…)

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that the lack of that kind of money, in itself, is necessarily a deterrent to participation in the democratic process. PD’s Camilla Appelgren, for instance, has just come out with a response to Peter Agius’s initiative. Her campaign expenses weigh in at… absolutely zero. She hasn’t spent a single euro centime in this election.

Well, much as I hate to point out the fly in that ointment… realistically speaking, Camilla Appelgren’s chances of winning a seat in this election are ‘absolutely zero’, too.

It would, perhaps, be facile to conclude that one’s electoral chances are directly proportional to the amount of cash you’ve frittered on your campaign – but as oversimplifications go, this one’s not too far from the truth.

Another example is Zaren Ta’ L-Ajkla. I’m fairly certain he’s not sitting on a private patrimony worth millions, either. Yet there he is, on the same ballot sheet as the ‘great and the good (and the rich)’ of Maltese politics.

However, I am equally certain that Zaren Ta’ L-Ajkla will not get elected on 25 May. Indeed, he probably won’t get more than 10 votes in total (note: but I do hope I am wrong on that. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to do a little campaigning on his behalf. Hear me out, folks. If everyone who attends Zaren’s ‘mass-meetings’ were to give him at least their last vote – no. 28, or whatever – he would come away with a respectable showing by the final count, that would repay him for all the entertainment he’s been kind enough to provide for free… all without jeopardising the overall result. Just a thought, good people; just a thought.)

Up to a point, then, money is undeniably a determining factor in one’s chances of winning (or doing well) in any given election. And while this may well be an inevitability, in and of itself: I, for one, think the bar has been set way too high.

And that’s before taking a look at the really big spenders in this election. Even just from the BA-approved campaign spots on TVM, before the 8 ‘o’clock news every day, you can immediately separate the stinking rich from the stony broke.

Moviment Pattrijotti Maltin’s ads, for instance, are just the close-up of a party spokesperson, against a Maltese flag backdrop, explaining all the points of their manifesto in around 10 seconds flat. In terms of production value, content, etc., it’s hard to imagine a smaller budget than that, really. Yet even those humble, microscopic TV spots would have set the party back by a few thousand euros. Airtime, alone, costs money. And you still need a cameraman, lighting, make-up, etc.

The Nationalist Party, as one would expect, put up a more costly effort. But I suppose it’s a reflection of that party’s financial woes, that their otherwise longer, more complex ads still come across as cut-scenes from their daily NET News bulletins: mostly edited stock-footage, with a voice-over narration.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; the documentary-style approach does work well as a campaign tool. But it is also the traditional approach for those who can’t afford anything… fancier.  

A category which clearly excludes the Labour Party: in fact, anyone would think they hired George Lucas or Peter Jackson as director for half their campaign ads.  Miriam Dalli’s make-up and wardrobe, alone, could easily rival Lady Gaga’s in ‘A Star Is Born’. Then there are the sweeping, helicopter-filmed panoramic shots; the orchestrated crowd-scenes, featuring dozens of extras; the nifty camerawork, the special effects, the glitz, the dazzle, the razzmatazz…

Heck, I’m now dying to see those official campaign expenditure declarations after 25 May. From Labour, I expect nothing less than the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster movie (or a single episode of Game of Thrones, if you prefer).

And oh, look: by a remarkable coincidence, Labour is also miles ahead in the polls. How did that happen, I wonder? Oh sure, some of it will have to do with the Opposition’s recent disintegration into a steaming, soggy, bubbling mess on the floor… but this, too, has to be viewed through the prism of party financing. The PN’s troubles began when it lost control of its own finances… which, for all the reasons outlined above, also has a direct bearing on its apparent inability to win an election, at any level, ever since.

Now that I think about it: in all the years I’ve been following Maltese politics – and I voted for the first time in 1992 – I don’t ever recall such a glaring mismatch in financial muscle-power before an election. Going only on the campaign expenditure that is visible (and I shudder to think how much isn’t)… we may as well not bother with elections at all. Just put those six seats up for auction. It will save time and trouble, and probably yield the same results anyway…

I need hardly add, however, that a teenie-weenie part of the whole point of an election will have been lost in translation. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s the part that begins with ‘democratic’, and ends with ‘process’.) And to me, the greatest danger is not so much that the Labour Party enjoys such a whopping lead over all Opposition parties combined… but that there is no one – among the serious contenders, anyway – who is representing the ordinary, everyday bloke on the street. You know: the ones who can’t afford to blow €26,500 on a private electoral campaign. The ones who can’t afford to rent a garage in Marsa, let alone a buy a villa in Wardija…

It explains a heck of a lot more than just that, too.  For instance: why those ‘serious contenders’ always turn out to be clones of each other. Why they’re all mostly lawyers, or mostly businessmen, or mostly architects, or sometimes doctors… but hardly ever schoolteachers, or construction workers, or furniture removers, or factory employees, or hotel poolside attendants, etc.

Our entire electoral system just slams the door shut in the face of anyone who earns less than 30 grand a year. Then we all wonder why – no matter who wins any given election – we always end up with a government that is plugged into the same old ‘political-industrial-financial complex’ that got us into this mess in the first place…

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