How to abort a political party, five days before an election

I suppose, with only four days to go before a European election, it’s a little too late to do anything about it now. The PD is going to have to somehow limp and hobble its way through the last days of this campaign

But before turning to what must go down as the spectacular campaign train-wreck in Maltese electoral history… a word about the murder of Lassana Cisse Souleymane.

I have decided not to comment on the arrest of those two AFM soldiers – and all the associated implications - for the time being. This is partly because the experience of the last few years alone has taught me to be cautious before wading headlong into such matters; but partly also because, as usual, the incident has already been drowned by a deluge of wildly speculative claims.

All I’ll say for now – though I’ll come back to this in the near future – is that Maltese politicians have to be ultra-cautious in how they respond to events such as this. Joseph Muscat gave a very fine, statesmanlike speech at Sunday’s Labour conference… but some of us might remember how sharply it contrasted with another speech he made, before another election, just a few years back.

Naturally, the U-turn is very welcome: but let’s face it. It wasn’t that long ago that the same Joseph Muscat was threatening ‘pushbacks’ - i.e., forced repatriation of asylum-seekers at sea, before their asylum request was even heard (still less processed and rejected) - from the exact same podium.

Likewise, Adrian Delia’s call for ‘political responsibility’ to be shouldered – uttered with former Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici sitting right behind him – must have rankled in the ears of all those who recently drove past PN billboards complaining about how Malta has become ‘littered with foreigners’.

Some might be itching to remind Delia of his own party’s responsibilities in this regard.

It was, after all, past Nationalist administrations – with their detention policies, their mass-deportations, their habit of ghettoising entire parts of the country, with no forethought whatsoever to the long-term consequences, etc. – that created the ideal conditions for racial hatred to flourish in this country. (And if my memory serves me correctly, it was on Mifsud Bonnici’s watch that another African man – Mamadou Kamara, from Mali - died violently in the back of a Detention Services van, parked outside the Paola health centre on the night of June 29, 2012. My, how quickly we forget…)

Lastly, President George Vella might want to have a word with his speech-writers – if he even has any – for painting him out as more immediately concerned with covering up for the Armed Forces of Malta, than with the murder itself. ‘Does not reflect on a disciplined corps’, my eye.

The fact that one of those suspects was retained in the AFM - despite previous criminal convictions, and an entire history of public, on-line racist hate-speech – points precisely towards a collapse in army discipline.

Having said that, I do agree that this crime should not be held up as an automatic indictment of all the AFM’s personnel.

I know from first-hand experience that some of them are, in fact, the very antithesis of racist hatemongers… the sort who – far from murdering a man in cold blood, just because of the colour of skin - would be the first to risk their own lives to save others: regardless of race, colour, or creed.

But to suggest that a brutal, execution-style racist murder, for which two AFM soldiers have already been charged, bears no implications whatsoever for the AFM’s chain of command… that’s just patently ridiculous.

OK, now… like Michael Stipes before me… ‘I’ve said too much’. At least, for the time being.

Moving onto other matters. As I may have had occasion to remark before… man, I’ve seen some pretty weird and wacky stuff in my time, you know.

Even I, however, shall have to concede that this latest campaign twist defies anything I have previously experienced, or even imagined. In fact, I’ll still trying to work out what the hell it was that just happened.

Let’s try and unravel it, shall we?

On Monday, the Times reported that the Nationalist Party and the Partit Demokratiku had both signed up to a pledge – originated by the rightwing group ‘Moviment Pattrijotti Maltin’, please note: the same guys who organize public ‘majjalati’, to demonstrate how ‘non-Muslim’ they are – to entrench Malta’s abortion ban in the Constitution.

Those of us who have been around will recognize this as a copy-and-paste of Tonio Borg’s ill-fated 2005 strategy. Then as now, it was very obviously a trap designed to force smaller parties into a corner over that one dreaded issue… abortion. Only this time, it came from one of the looniest of Malta’s fringe parties, instead of directly from the PN itself.

No surprises, of course, that the PN would fall over itself in its haste to sign up… the PN having a long history of weaponizing this issue to kill both the discussion, and also their political opponents: one, by bloody one.

But I was a little surprised to see how easily and naively the PD – supposedly Malta’s only ‘liberal’ party, affiliated with the ALDE (for how much longer, remains to be seen) – walked straight into the trap.

That, by the way, was before the inevitable (and woefully predictable) backlash even kicked in.

For fairly obvious reasons, liberal voters who support recent calls for (at minimum) a healthy debate on the issue, were gobsmacked to see ‘their’ party aligning itself with such a radical, fundamentalist initiative.

For, at the risk of repeating all the arguments of 2005 (where was Godfrey Farrugia back then, by the way?)… this is not just about ‘abortion’. This is a naked, undisguised bid to stifle all future discussion on the topic, by placing it beyond the reach of any meaningful legislative change.

As such, it is the very opposite of ‘liberalism’ – it is a coercive drive to exploit a massive (and mostly emotive) opposition to one issue, in order to inculcate only one viewpoint at the cost of all others.

As a liberal voter, I would cut off my hand before ever using it to elect any candidate who was illiberal enough to support that initiative.
PD chairman Godfrey Farrugia is no stranger to politics, and all it entails… so I imagine he was perfectly aware that, by signing that document, he was also signing away most (if not all) of his party’s liberal supporters, in one fell swoop.

And this is the part I don’t get. That he would do so himself – exclusively as an individual, independent candidate – might even make sense (if, that is, he wasn’t also representing the European liberals and democrats in this election).

But that he would commit his entire party to that pledge, in writing… only for around half its candidates to public dissociate themselves from it, within the space of literally a few hours… no, I don’t get that at all.

Given that one of his sternest critics was Marlene Farrugia, no less: the founder of PD, and also… well, I don’t like bringing personal relationships into it, but I’m afraid it has to be done, under the circumstances.

What, are we to understand that Godfrey Farrugia didn’t even inform his own partner, before taking such a giant leap in the dark? Was signing that pledge a ‘surprise’ he decided to just spring onto his own party… just like that, out of nowhere, five days before an election?
I can only surmise that that is what, in fact, happened. How else can we explain that Marlene Farrugia would “distance [herself] from the extremists and fundamentalists who came up with this senseless pledge which has nothing to do with regard for human life but has everything to do with subordination of females, and with the gross insensitivity and judgemental attitude for the plight of women,” etc?
Or that Timothy Alden – the PD’s deputy leader (and, therefore, Godfrey’s right-hand man) would illustrate his reaction with a picture of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the Starship Enterprise, doing a classic ‘facepalm’?

Or that two PD members – candidate Camilla Applegren and Matthew Mizzi – would immediately dissociate themselves from their party leader (Applegren would even go on to withdraw from Facebook altogether, in the last week of the campaign)?

On that note, I still can’t understand why it ended up being Camilla Appelgren to walk the plank… and not Godfrey Farrugia, who committed this giant blunder in the first place. But that’s just an aside.

Above all: how can we reconcile Godfrey Farrugia’s (apparently individual) initiative, with the manifesto of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe… which the PD has also separately endorsed, despite the fact that it very clearly, and very unambiguously, upholds the right of women to access safe abortions in their own country?

But if you ask me, the single most bizarre aspect of it all is that… well, Timothy Alden sums it up quite neatly, in that ‘facepalm’ post of his: “The party leaders have either signed or not signed a pledge relating to the right to life in the constitution. It is, by design, meant to split people apart, to be neatly categorised into one camp or another. By design, EACH political party was going to be wounded by it. That is because EACH mainstream political party in Malta contains both conservatives and liberals…”

Alden, it seems, was all along capable of seeing that which proved invisible to his older (and vastly more experienced) party leader.

Yet all the same, the PD - like AD before it – allowed itself to be eviscerated by the same old political ploy. How many other small parties and grassroots movements are going to be simply swept away in future – to the benefit of the traditional political duopoly, and the detriment of public debate in Malta – before we all realise that this is ultimately what this abortion hullaballoo is all about?

It cannot be that there is not a single Maltese political party out there – not even on the loony fringe – that is capable of resisting this trap. It cannot be that Malta’s entire political class is just too goddamn terrified of this great big ‘babaw’ – this mere word, whose very utterance seems to cause them all to instantly dive for cover - to be able to stand up to a classic case of political bullying.

I suppose, with only four days to go before a European election, it’s a little too late to do anything about it now. The PD is going to have to somehow limp and hobble its way through the last days of this campaign… with its best candidates ‘missing in action’, and dragging its wounded, shell-shocked leader behind it as it goes.

But after this election? That’s a whole different ballgame…

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