In need of a reality check

There are indications that more people are switching off from the usual allure of the political parties.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

If this European election campaign was a taste of things to come over the next few years, it would seem that both Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil might be in serious need of a reality check.

From the outset, the tone of the campaign was entirely partisan on both sides, with the Labour and Nationalist Parties seeming at moments to forget that there were other parties contesting this election, or even other issues of popular concern apart from their own increasingly petty squabbles.

This approach simply fails to take into account the fact that, following last year’s election and the preceding divorce referendum, people are now clearly suffering from electoral fatigue, and enthusiasm for the parties appears to be at an all-time low.

And yet, the two party leaders took a conscious and deliberate decision to reduce the entire election to a presidential-style contest between themselves. Whether this drive will be reflected in the result is impossible to say at this stage but in the end, the campaign strategy on both sides told us infinitely more about Muscat and Busuttil than about their respective parties’ European agenda.

Above all, it illustrated that the two leaders are now so deeply pitched in their own private battle that they seem totally detached from issues of concern to the ordinary voter. Significantly, it fell to the minority parties in this election to discuss matters of relevance to the European parliament, or to the EU as a whole.

With the exception of a last-minute Labour drive to concentrate on migration – and even then, this was discussed without offering any tangible strategy that is any different from that of former governments – most of the real issues facing the country were either side-lined altogether, or used largely as ammunition with which to score cheap political points.

Meanwhile, there are indications that more people are switching off from the usual allure of the political parties. So by drawing so much attention to themselves, the two leaders also illustrated precisely how out of touch they have grown from the rest of the population.

In so doing, they may have also exposed flaws that were not visible previously. The image projected by Joseph Muscat was quite unlike the one he projected before the last election: infinitely more bullish and confrontational. Despite occasional admissions to having ‘made mistakes’, Joseph Muscat managed to impart a sense of near-infallibility to his public speeches, especially in his consistent, brusque dismissal of even legitimate criticism by the Opposition.

Muscat can certainly take some credit for his first year in office, especially in the civil rights arena, but if he genuinely believes he is immune to all criticism, he is gravely mistaken. Criticism can and should be levelled at a number of his own decisions, especially those touching on the ‘meritocracy’ part of his electoral manifesto. Muscat cannot continue disregarding the fact that people expected better from his government, even in its first year. After his campaign last year, he owes it to the electorate to be fully meritorious and transparent, and there are other areas – notably health – where his government has left much to be desired.

The image imparted by the Nationalist Party leader, on the other hand, was oddly similar to that of Muscat, only without the morale boost of an impressive electoral victory last year. Indeed, Simon Busuttil seems to have forgotten last year’s electoral defeat altogether, or at least not to have taken its significance on board. One year later, the PN leader is back to the same mantra that nothing good can possibly come out of Labour, wilfully ignoring the many positive changes that have come about this year, and that people voted for in March 2013.

By constantly belittling even the Labour government’s commendable achievements – the reduction in utility tariffs, the reduction of the national debt, the lowering of fuel prices, free childcare, the reforms in education, etc. – Busuttil is not only undermining his own credibility on the same issues, but also making himself seem insensitive to the plight of lower income earners who stand to benefit from these measures.

It was precisely this perceived insensitivity that had proved so costly to the PN before the last election. Yet not only has Busuttil retained a hint of the same ‘arrogance’, he also projects the image of a leader incapable of taking principled positions on a number sensitive issues. With his failure to form an opinion on drug policy reform, on top of his previous abstention on the civil rights bill, Simon Busuttil is slowly cementing a reputation for wishy-washiness that sits uneasily next to his daily accusations of Labour as ‘incompetent’.

All along, both party leaders have ignored indications that a growing segment of the electorate is losing faith in traditional politics. It remains to be seen whether this election result, in itself, will be enough to shake the two parties out of a political deadlock that is increasingly coming to resemble a personal feud between their respective leaders.

If not, both parties can only expect more voters to abandon them in future, with the added danger that many may move towards the fringes of the political spectrum.

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