Time for parties to rein in their thugs

Does the PN (or Labour, for that matter) need to surround itself with strongarm tough-guys, in today’s political climate?

The scenes that unfolded outside the PN headquarters last Tuesday were certainly nothing new, to anyone who has worked in the local media at any point in the last 25 years.

For a lot longer than that, it has been an open secret that both the larger parties are home to a variety of homegrown thugs and troublemakers: all permanently hovering around their leader like a swarm of angry, buzzing hornets; and threatening to ‘sting’ anyone who poses any form of ‘threat’ to the source of all their power and influence.

Like many other open secrets, this is one we all seem to have simply accepted as an unavoidable facet of Maltese politics. Watching that clip again, I was reminded of literally dozens of other analogous incidents I have witnessed (sometimes directed at myself) over the past two decades… occasionally (but never in my own case) spilling over into actual violence: a photographer’s camera broken here, a journalist manhandled or injured there… all in the name of ‘party loyalty’.

In times of political tension – which is to say, every couple of years or so - you can almost set your watch by the regularity with which some partisan hothead or other will step out of the shadows, and bully or harass a journalist for trying to take a photo, or daring to ask their party leader an awkward or difficult question.  

Most often, however, they don’t even need to resort to (or threaten) violence. Their mere presence alone, coupled with their menacing scowls… and in at least one case in which I was involved, their sarcastic grins… is all it might take to remind the press who’s really in charge at those political events.

Make no mistake, it is an ugly spectacle to behold. And it has also been a mainstay of local politics, on both sides of the divide, ever since I can remember.

I don’t think I need to explain why, either. My memory stretches back, at very most, to the late 1970s: which was probably the heyday of a culture of thuggery that had already existed for decades. So notorious was that era, in fact, that looked back upon it really does start to resemble the mythical ‘Old West’: a history punctuated by the names (and nicknames) of famous ‘outlaws’ – Ic-Caqwes, It-Toto, Il-Qattus, Il-Qahbu, Zeppi il-Hafi, etc. – who all somehow left their mark in a decades-old, and often deadly, feud between rival clans.

But at least, back then there were clear and pressing reasons to explain their role within the broader historical tableau. Like the Old West, the Maltese political landscape was still a hostile, dangerous wilderness that needed ‘taming’. If politicians felt the need to surround themselves with bodyguards… it was because they - and their families, supporters, etc. - very often really did need protection from the army of thugs on the other side.

What’s their excuse today, I wonder? Do people like Adrian Delia feel so threatened by a young woman filming with her mobile phone, that they condone the continued existence of henchmen and hoodlums to prevent it from actually happening?

For that is also what emerged from that clip and its aftermath. So far, it has elicited complaints from the Press Club and various NGOs – including (here’s the rub) the ones that are openly inimical to Delia – but I have not heard a word of condemnation from the Nationalist Party itself.

It doesn’t even surprise me all that much, because… well, there was no real public reaction, either. We are all so inured to this sort of thing that it doesn’t even feel all that ‘wrong’. And there are, in fact, several known scenarios where the presence of this criminal underbelly of politics is not only accepted, but almost expected.

For instance: nobody bats an eyelid when, at a mass-meeting, a party leader is carried shoulder-high to the podium, by what can only be described as a small private army of delirious political guerillas...

Until recently, it was even considered perfectly normal for a thug from either side (cunningly disguised as a ‘party official’) to accompany the police when delivering voting documents before an election. Or for small groups of party vigilantes to congregate outside polling stations on voting day: ostensibly to ‘offer protection’ in case of trouble… but very often causing all the trouble themselves.

So it hardly surprises anyone at all to see a man menacingly trying to stop a journalist from filming PN councillors as they emerged from last Tuesday’s Executive Council meeting: even though it is journalists, and not thugs, who have any business at all to even be present for such events... let alone to call all the shots.

It is, after all, the journalist’s job to inform the general public of the state of affairs in Malta’s largest Opposition party. Which raises an inevitable question: what was the job of the man trying to block that camera with his hand, anyway? What is his role, if any, within the PN’s structures, to even justify his presence at the party headquarters at all?

I won’t bother answering that, because we all both know and accept the score. Thirty years ago, it might have been to take the (proverbial, but also possibly real, and most likely rubber) ‘bullet’ on behalf of their leader. Today, it can only be to preserve a status quo from which such people are clearly benefitting, though they themselves serve no other real purpose in the greater scheme of things.

Does the PN (or Labour, for that matter) need to surround itself with strongarm tough-guys, in today’s political climate? Clearly, the answer is no. But invert the question and a different picture emerges. Do the tough-guys need their party leaders to remain in place for as long as possible? Evidently, yes, they do. Even for the simple reason that their attachment to one leader – in this case, Adrian Delia – would suddenly become meaningless, if Delia was no longer the leader of any party at all.

So yes: there may admittedly be nothing more than fierce party loyalty, for its own sake, at work in this particular case… but we all know from past experience that some of these people may indeed one day expect a return on their ‘investment’.

They may, for instance, presume that their years of loyal service on the frontlines would be rewarded when ‘their’ side is in power: public sector jobs, possibly as watchmen or ‘security’; guaranteed development permits, on demand; the odd concession for a kiosk or a beachclub here and there; all the way up to instant Presidential pardons, for anything from drug-trafficking to armed robbery…

It would be futile to deny there is a whole history of this sort of thing, on either side of the warzone. And if we continue to accept that political parties surround themselves with criminals, like it’s the most natural thing in the world… well, it is only natural that the outcome would be nothing less than criminal, too.

But even if it were just a case of overzealous fandom… a ‘Delia-sal-mewt’ sort of mentality, which also undeniably exists on both sides… it doesn’t make it any less unacceptable, does it?

So much so, that this sort of behaviour would not be tolerated (not, at least, so openly and undisguised) in many other European countries.  I’d like to see the reaction if the German equivalent of our ‘Alpha-male party hoodlum’ tried to stop a journalist from filming Angela Merkel on her way out of a party conference like that… especially when other journalists at the same event are left free and unmolested to take as many photos, and ask as many questions, as they like.

It would be headline news all over Europe, quite frankly. Nowhere more so than in Germany itself, where the incident would also stir up uncomfortable memories of the media subjugation under Hitler and Goebbels throughout the 1930s.

But even anywhere else in the democratic world, that behaviour would be compared to the pre-Fourth Estate era: when political parties were expected to deploy armies of thugs to suppress dissenting opinions; and the press itself was perceived to exist only as an official mouthpiece for political propaganda.

Here in Malta, on the other hand, it seems to still be business as usual. And I, for one, would like to know why.

I suppose the lazy way to describe this culture would be as an ‘inevitable consequence of our inherent tendency towards tribalism’. We accept these things, in the same way as we expect fights to break out between rival band-clubs at the local village festa, or at a football match, etc.

But that, to me, is simply accepting the cause with as much resignation as the effect. It doesn’t answer the all-important question: why do we have this ‘tendency towards tribalism’ in the first place?

Even then, it doesn’t address the underlying tendency towards violence. Since when does rivalry have to manifest itself only in terms of open aggression, anyway? Why didn’t the same political antagonism not produce a culture of healthy debate, instead of unhealthy intimidation?

I can’t give complete answers to either question, but - given the unacceptable fact that this culture still clearly thrives, around three decades after the forces that gave rise to it fizzled out – I think it’s something that our best brains are going to have to try and work out, if we are ever going to evolve out of this Paleolithic phase that Maltese politics is evidently still stuck in.

And the answers are going to have to come from the two parties themselves. Gone are the days when they could point towards real threats to life and limb to justify surrounding themselves with hoodlums.  In today’s climate, they’re going to have to come up with other reason, to explain why journalists are still openly bullied and harassed on their own doorsteps, by people who are clearly motivated by attachment to their own party.

Well, I’m not hearing any explanation for this utterly unacceptable situation right now. Are you?

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