‘The show must go on’, within limits

The entire scenario has changed beyond recognition since the start of the electoral campaign; but the campaign itself has not changed accordingly at all

To say that General Elections 2022 have been ‘overshadowed’ by war in Ukraine, would be an understatement.

With the election itself only three weeks away, there is a noticeable absence of the usual fever pitch traditionally associated with political campaigns. This in turn may be due to other factors, aside from the anxiety and concerns caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Malta is still recovering from the effects of a two-year pandemic; and even before the first Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border, the nation was already bracing itself for anticipated price-hikes and inflation, across the board.

As such, the country’s appetite for local politics appears to be at an all-time low. Understandably enough, Maltese businesses (and public alike) are evidently more concerned with the long-term effects of war and disease, than with the usual five-year appointment with political excitement.

Naturally, this does not mean that political parties should lessen their efforts to get their electoral messages across. It may be a trite expression; but ‘the show must go on’ applies just as much to elections, as to theatre or the arts.

It would, indeed, be a disservice to the nation – as well as a service to Vladimir Putin’s war machine – to allow the Ukrainian war to disrupt, or derail, the regular democratic process. Surreal as it may appear: we also have an obligation to maintain the semblance of ordinary, everyday reality.

Nonetheless, both the war and the pandemic provide a new context in which this reality must unfold. And in this context, there are limits to how far the pretence of normality can be stretched. Campaigning is one thing; but making grand electoral promises of financial prosperity – at a time when the rest of the world is facing deep economic uncertainty – is something else entirely.

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo himself has warned that “the price of energy, food, metals and microchips have and will continue to rise.”

In fact, Malta sources most of its wheat, corn and barley from the Ukraine – and Russia, to a lesser extent – and importers are already struggling to keep up with price hikes. Experts estimate that the price of Ukraine wheat alone has already gone up 20% since 24 February, when the first Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. And Malta is already feeling the brunt.

To be fair, government has said it will be cushioning the energy price hikes – a decision announced in the last budget, when the reason was not war but post-pandemic supply disruptions.  But it cannot realistically be expected to also subsidise – or somehow compensate for – a global spike in the cost of transport/imported goods, across the board.

Meanwhile the impact goes far beyond energy prices and wheat.  There is also the general global instability created by both the war itself, and also the sanctions that have been now been imposed on Russia. The world must therefore brace itself for a fresh round of uncertainty that will not simply go away, even if the warring parties make peace.  

Within this context one cannot but look at how all this will impact Malta: before making wild promises of ‘prosperity for all’. For instance: it did not go unnoticed that government was reluctant to suspend the IIP (‘Golden Passport’) scheme for Russians. Clearly, this scheme has become an important source of revenue for government; and as such, it may well have been an integral part of its economic plans to weather the post-COVID storm.

Coupled with decreases in tax revenue, that will arise from both parties’ over-generous promises of tax cuts, this will only further limit the incoming government’s financial means to actually deliver on its many electoral pledges.

Ultimately, the projections made in the budget would have certainly changed with the war in Ukraine; which makes it all the more incumbent on political parties to be less cavalier in their promises for the election campaign.  

Proposals that push expenditure into the millions and with no tax hikes of any sort being proposed, means that both major parties are relying on economic growth alone to generate enough income to sustain their pledges.  

This may, in part, be justified by pointing towards the positive projections of credit ratings agencies, and even the European Commission itself. But these, too, may have to be revised in light of the new reality. Economic growth projections may fall below expectations, which will require a more nuanced approach to spending.  

In a nutshell, the entire scenario has changed beyond recognition since the start of the electoral campaign; but the campaign itself has not changed accordingly at all. And given that the rest of the country – as evidenced by its flagging interest in the election – is clearly more concerned with the reality on the ground, than the politician who hope to represent it in Parliament: this may even have repercussions on the credibility of the political parties themselves.

Simply put, the political parties must take the Ukrainian war into account, when making their electoral calculations. Otherwise, they risk being perceived as out of touch with reality.

As for the ‘show’ itself, it certainly ‘must go on’. But only within reasonable limits.