Addicted to politics

The choice of next President may provide an opportunity to begin a ‘detox’ process to address the country’s burgeoning political addiction.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The results of our survey about the Presidency, published in Sunday's edition, appear at a glance to contain a glaring contradiction.

Respondents to the survey were asked directly whom they would like to see succeed President George Abela when his term expires in April. An outright majority - 57% - said they would prefer a president from outside the sphere of partisan politics: yet when asked to supply names, nearly all respondents left the option blank. Despite their own declared preference for a non-political president, it seems that very few people were even able to think of a single suitable candidate. And the implications go well beyond the immediate issue of choosing Malta's next president.

Despite various claims to the effect that that the Maltese are 'fed up' with politics, it is inexorably towards politics that we find ourselves time and again gravitating as a nation. This newspaper - and no doubt others too - can easily confirm this trend: local political stories are matched only by violent crime in the 'most read' categories of all online media.

There is a case to be made that Malta is in fact addicted to politics; and like all addictions, this national dependency of ours can also be dangerous. After all, it may not be a coincidence that hardly any non-political candidates feature in a wish-list compiled by members of the general public. Indeed it may even be a consequence of the way partisan politics now seeps into most, if not all, aspects of everyday life.

We have seen from recent controversies how stepping into the limelight, in a country so intrinsically divided as our own, can herald immediate undesirable consequences for the non-political people in our midst. When a short-list of National Order of Merit award winners was made public late last year - containing a veritable compendium of mostly non-political contenders - many of the persons named were openly ridiculed and maligned.

Some of the choices were themselves criticised as being 'political', even if the people concerned had no immediate political affiliations. The nomination of transsexual Joanne Cassar, for instance, was interpreted as a parting shot aimed at the Gonzi administration which had twice tried to strip her of her right to marry. Ulterior motives were detected in other cases, too: many of the nominees were perceived to be people who had either favoured the present administration, or who had had entanglements with its immediate predecessor.

Controversial author Alex Vella Gera, who falls squarely into the second of those categories, turned down his own award specifically because he did not to be associated with what he described as a 'political farce'.

The subliminal message is clear: for those who do not harbour political aspirations of their own, being in the public eye entails more dangers than it is worth. Most people who are not politicians in fact choose to meticulously avoid publicity in Malta; and with the exception of entertainers and television personalities - none of whom is ever realistically considered for the Presidency - our only home-grown 'celebrities' tend overwhelmingly to be politicians.

A cursory glance at Malta's past presidents will graphically confirm this perception. Since 1974, only one President - the first - was technically a non-political appointee, while another acting President was likewise chosen from outside the partisan circuit. The rest were nearly all party grandees: former ministers, prime ministers, party leaders or deputy leaders, all the way down to the incumbent. 

On occasion this has served also to obscure the actual role of the president, who has a Constitutional obligation to act as a figurehead for all citizens of the Maltese Republic, regardless of political persuasion. Yet in recent years we saw a President Emeritus address a political mass meeting on the eve of an election: and even without such unfortunate events, the very fact that presidents are traditionally chosen from the political arena, also means that the office is often tainted by a partisan streak even if the incumbent does nothing to attract any criticism at all.

One need only consult the record to find out what any given president would have said a few years previously, while still wearing the hat of a Cabinet Minister or Opposition spokesman, about a rival party representing roughly half the country. Exactly how such candidates are expected to suddenly forget all the divisive comments they may have uttered in previous years, just because they suddenly assume the mantle of the Presidency, is anyone's guess. But for those who follow the local political scene closely, the transition is often a surreal metamorphosis to watch.

President George Abela is arguably an exception: despite having been a deputy Labour leader he was never generally regarded as a divisive figure in Maltese politics even at the height of his political career. But such candidates are rarities in Malta's often viscerally combative environment. 

In a sense, therefore, the choice of next President may also provide an opportunity to begin a 'detox' process to address the country's burgeoning political addiction. A non-political President - the first in over 25 years - would be a powerful message that the mantra of 'Malta Taghna Lkoll' (so rarely visible just 10 months after the election) was more just than an empty slogan.