Lessons from the electorate

Malta is changing; and unless its political parties likewise change, they will be simply left behind.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Last week’s European election has illustrated profound changes to Malta’s political landscape. In a sense this constitutes a repetition of history: Malta had undergone a similar transformation in the mid- to late 1970s, with the result that the major parties shifted from their traditional positions to capitalize on the changing electoral trends.

In 1977, newly elected PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami moved the Nationalist Party from the right wing to the centre-left, to counter the charismatic populism of Dom Mintoff. The transition proved immensely successful, with the PN winning the next three elections on the trot.

Thirty years later we see evidence of a more recent calibration: under Joseph Muscat, the PL has consciously remodelled itself as a moderate, centrist and overwhelmingly populist party that has sacrificed political ideology for electoral support. Once again this was a successful strategy, but with the PN also occupying the centre, it has created a political vacuum that no party has so far exploited successfully.

The emergence of a Labour hegemony to replace the Nationalist one (which has now clearly crumbled) is not based on any discernable political ideology. The PL seems to have invested all its capital on the personality of Joseph Muscat, who now acts as a cohesive force to keep together an unlikely coalition of leftwing activists, business interests and political liberals who (for reasons of history) have tended to favour the more traditionally rightwing PN.

This also means Malta still lacks a proper voice of the left to counter the PL’s right-wing identity and neoliberal economics.

The election result has also exposed seismic demographic changes to the political landscape itself. The middle-class we once knew – and which was straightforwardly Nationalist – no longer exists. The diminished share of voters for the PN on the traditionally blue 9th and 10th district shows that the new middle class can no longer be relied on for automatic support. This in turn also means that the PN can no longer count on being the ‘natural party of government’: Labour has shown it can make incursions into ‘enemy territory’, just like the PN did following similar demographic upheavals in the late 1970s.

The implications are weighty for all political parties concerned. For the PN, the scenario spells out an urgent need to re-invent itself to establish a clear electoral foothold. No longer able to muster support merely as a counterpoise to the Labour hegemony, the party must now provide valid arguments to convince voters. This involves taking clear and unequivocal political positions on issues that are only now emerging to challenge the political status quo.

Already, however, it has been undermined by its problematic flip-flopping on issues, as well as a social conservatism inherited from previous administrations. It seems that PN leader Simon Busuttil prefers to focus his energies on winning short-term political battles (which nobody cares about), instead of building bridges to disgruntled NGOs which are now gravitationally pulled towards the allure of the Labour ‘meteor’. The fact that he also lost those battles only adds to the incongruity of his political vision.

But the result should sound alarm bells within Labour, too. Gains made by the far right – although still small on a national level – pose a serious challenge to Muscat’s claims to stand for equality and civil rights. Yet Muscat himself bears some responsibility for the victory of the extreme right, thanks to his irresponsible strategy of stoking the fear of immigration for electoral gain: something Muscat has done consistently since his time as Opposition leader.

If Muscat is really a believer in equality he must show that equality is not a la carte. He must fight the far right – not for the benefit of Labour, which will remain untouched by a minor force, but for the good of society. This he must do by giving good examples, by promoting strong Labour principles, fighting precarious work conditions, promoting positive integration promises, and allaying blue-collar ‘nativist’ fears of migration by improving the skills base of workers.

The last lesson is for Alternattiva Demokratika, which once again failed to elevate itself from the lowest rungs of the political ladder. Despite their lack of electoral success, the Greens have so far played an important role as the foremost left-liberal voice on civil rights, migration, drugs policy, citizenship, energy and environment. But it must also admit its strategies have so far been counter-productive. The result clearly shows that feeding on the discontent of former Nationalists has not helped AD; nor does it address the electoral concerns of the people most likely to vote Green.

If the party is to rediscover relevance in the new Malta, it must return to its left-wing roots. We cannot deny that it registered its best ever electoral result in 2013, when its leader gave it a clear ideological direction. And with both parties occupying the centre, there is also need of a voice to echo concerns of a socially underprivileged segment that is likely to grow in future.

Underlying all these observations is an emerging fact which political parties can only ignore at their peril. Malta is changing; and unless its political parties likewise change, they will be simply left behind.

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