Are political parties becoming irrelevant?

Abela’s appointment vacates the position of ‘deputy leader for party affairs’, and the choice of successor will invariably be interpreted as a sign of things to come within the party.

The appointment of Dr Toni Abela to the European Court of Auditors has resulted in the opportunity for an administrative shakeup within the Labour Party.

Abela’s appointment vacates the position of ‘deputy leader for party affairs’, and the choice of successor will invariably be interpreted as a sign of things to come within the party.

Traditionally, the deputy leadership of any political party has always been viewed as a key strategic power node, albeit not always serving the same purpose. In the Nationalist Party, for instance, the deputy leadership has in the past served as a stepping stone for future leadership (vide Lawrence Gonzi). More frequently, however, it has helped the party keep on board different and sometimes conflicting visions. The Eddie Fenech Adami/Guido de Marco tandem in the 1980s and 1990s seemed designed to keep two disparate ‘factions’ in harmony. De Marco had contested for the leadership in 1977; by appointing him deputy leader, Fenech Adami can be seen to have kept a potential rift from deepening.

The Labour Party is no stranger to internal rifts either, and in the past such tensions have often been kept in check through the judicious use of similar party positions and structures. Originally, the post of ‘deputy leader for party affairs’ was created by former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff to counter the ambitions of one of his MPs (Lorry Sant) to become deputy leader. 

This counterweight evolved inside Labour, and apart from the original intention, the resulting change in leadership structure can be seen to have paid dividends for the party. Having a non-MP deputy leader, coupled with an MP serving as ‘deputy leader for parliamentary affairs’, created a ‘triumvirate’ style of leadership that was portrayed effectively on billboards to clinch Labour’s 1996 electoral victory.

More importantly, the distinction between ‘party’ and ‘parliamentary affairs’ also served to underscore the fundamental distinction between ‘party’ and ‘government’: a distinction that is all too often blurred in Malta’s current political set-up.

From this perspective, the choice of new deputy leader will surely be significant. Initial indications are that the preferred candidate is Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi. If so, this would cement the impression of a drift towards the right of the political spectrum. 

Abela, one of the party’s few left wing intellectual voices, served to counterbalance the pro-business orientation of the Labour Party under Muscat. His departure may weaken the party’s appeal to socialists who saw in Abela the last representative of the Old Left. 

Abela’s departure would also further weaken the party’s ability to keep the government in check through constructive internal criticism. Indeed, such a change would also dilute the distinction between ‘party’ and ‘government’. 

Even from a distance, however, a problem swims into view. Technically, none of the above is eligible for the post under the current rules. The position of deputy leader for party affairs was created purposely for someone who must not be a Member of Parliament. To accommodate any of the names suggested so far, the PL executive would have to revise the rules to accommodate Muscat’s wishes. In so doing, the party structure itself is likely to undergo a radical transformation. 

With Mizzi as deputy leader, it would in part be an indication that Muscat is availing himself of the opportunity to strengthen his own position as party leader. Mizzi is widely regarded as a Muscat loyalist: a far cry from Abela, who was often a dissenting voice within the party. This move would be a sign that all Muscat wants is for his party to be an electoral machine geared at supporting the party-in-government; and not an incubator of ideas or grassroots support.

Already we have a system geared towards party leaders assuming a ‘Presidential’ role in electoral campaigning (focusing on the ‘cult of the leader’, rather than the party itself). The symbolism of installing a close Muscat ally as deputy leader for party affairs would only confirm that the party has now become just a managerial unit for garnering votes.

Nor would this be a first for Labour under Muscat, who has already sought to curb the influence of party grassroots onto his managerial, top-down political control. Muscat ditched the role of ‘secretary-general’, and instead proceeded to appoint his own handpicked CEO, James Piscopo.

This decision effectively killed off the party delegates’ say as to who runs the party’s operations, effectively rendering Labour less a party of its own voters, and more a party whose top roles are dictated by its leader… in direct contrast to the direct democracy that democratic socialist parties usually take pride in.

This raises the question of whether political parties really are the true representatives of the people; or whether they have now become mere interest groups whose access to political influence produces maximum beneficial effect only to a limited group of people close to the leadership core. 

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