A battle worth fighting

One cannot represent both liberals and conservatives, or appeal to both environmentalists and the construction industry. Yet both parties attempt to do precisely that, with consequences that are demonstrably harmful to the country.

There has been growing talk of ‘a new political force’ being born in the wake of the Panama scandal, with people like Marlene Farrugia, Franco Debono, Salvu Mallia all hinting at a possible ‘new party’.

At face value, this is an inevitable consequence of the gradual erosion of trust in mainstream politics, occasioned not just by Panamagate, but also by a wave of successive scandals that has dogged the Labour government’s first three years in office.

Panamagate may indeed yet prove to be the last straw. Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi has admitted his part in the creation of an offshore trust that had assets in a blacklisted tax haven; evidence has separately emerged to substantiate at least part of the allegations against OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri: i.e., that Kasco Ltd appeared as beneficiary to an offshore trust.

Despite the seriousness of the implications, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has so far defended his beleaguered colleagues. This is in a sense a doubly bitter pill to swallow. Muscat may have delivered part of his ambitious programme of social reform, but it was his pledge of good governance that clearly captivated popular imagination before the 2013 election.

Yet not only has the Labour government been beset by a series of scandals touching deeply on governance issues; but unlike previous cases – where Muscat sacked two of his erring Cabinet ministers, Manuel Mallia and Michael Falzon – he now no longer seems intent on taking action. 

Coupled with the Opposition’s credibility issues over the same (or similar) issues in the recent past, it is perhaps natural that some people would start looking beyond the two-party paradigm.

Independently of the present government and its actions (or lack thereof), one thing Panamagate illustrated was the excessive power enjoyed by the two big political parties: which they have largely used to render other organs of the state apparatus incapable of keeping them in check.

We have seen how, in cases of political allegations, the Police Force and other ‘watchdog institutions’ only ever act at the instigation of the politicians themselves. Similarly, magistrates have no power to investigate independently – unlike in Italy, where the judiciary was instrumental in exposing the ‘Tangentopoli’ scandal in the early 1990s – and the judiciary has been reduced to a political football, whereby appointments in all institutions (with a few exceptions, such as the Ombudsman) depend exclusively on the party in power.

Moreover, the two parties have managed to usurp each and every inch of public life, deciding the rules of the game at every step by legislating, choosing the arbiter, and keeping vital power nodes such as the Electoral Commission and Broadcasting Authority under control.

Not unlike schoolyard bullies, they converge only in their attempts to keep everyone else off their patch.

Both parties have also seen their respective identities diluted over the years, to become rainbow coalitions which try to be as widely inclusive as possible. Not only does this alienate issue-motivated voters, but it inevitably results in ideologically incompatible factions striving for dominance within each party. One cannot represent both liberals and conservatives, or appeal to both environmentalists and the construction industry. Yet both parties attempt to do precisely that, with consequences that are demonstrably harmful to the country.

Clearly, the conditions are ripe for a new political force to emerge: be it a new party, or a radical reshaping of Alternattiva Demokratika. For it to be effective, however, it must be credible and serious. Above all, it must steer clear of knee-jerk reactionism of a Beppe Grillo; or a hotch-potch of disgruntled politicians with no cohesive ideology/vision to unite them, other than anger for the current political mess.

A new political force must also be very clear about what it is striving to achieve. It should have a clear vision which is also realistic: taking into account that the rules of the game are skewed in favour of the two major parties. Ours is a distorted version of the Single Transferrable Vote system, which was originally designed to encourage people to vote for multiple parties. In fact, recent elections in Ireland (on whose electoral law ours was modelled in the 1920s) returned some eight parties in parliament using the same system.

Regrettably, the two parties have between them succeeded in turning this electoral system into a Presidential-style election: whereby people vote for whom they want to lead government, and not for the candidates they want to represent them in Parliament.

A reform of electoral laws has been discussed for many years, and now is perhaps the best time to insist that the present injustices – which leave thousands of Maltese citizens unrepresented in parliament – be redressed once and for all.

The biggest hurdle, however, will be that of convincing a traditional sceptical electorate of the merits of multi-party representation. A new party would not only face a non-level playing field in terms of broadcasting and finances; it would also have to fight a cultural battle to convince people that electing a third or fourth party will not bring instability, or have apocalyptical consequences.

Given that the alternative is an untenable status quo, it is a battle worth fighting.

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