Stability is not an end in itself

Stability and freedom are not interchangeable. The world’s most repressive dictatorships are ‘stable’, precisely because they curtail the freedom to ever have them removed from power

There are many things Malta can boast of in its 52 years as a sovereign state, and ‘political stability’ is to a degree one of them. Despite a superficial reality characterised by tense political confrontation, our country has only rarely ever been threatened to its foundations since (and even before) independence.

Nor can it be entirely a coincidence that the House of Representatives has been occupied by the same two parties since 1964. It remains debatable whether Malta’s perceived political stability is in fact a consequence of the two-party system; though the parties themselves are entitled to take credit for it if they wish.

It seems, however, that they are going beyond that, to actually equate ‘stability’ with the two-party system itself. In responses to the announcement of a new political party in the offing, both PN and PL labelled this initiative as a “threat to stability”… which is both unfair and misleading.  

Conveniently, they choose to overlook the fact that Germany – the economic powerhouse of the EU – is arguably Europe’s most stable country… despite having had a multi-party system for decades. Indeed, coalition governments are much more the norm than the exception across Europe, and with a few exceptions the resulting governments are mostly stable.

Admittedly, one cannot lightly ignore such exceptions. In other countries such as Italy, the multi-party system is still associated with a history of political instability. If nothing else, this illustrates the possible danger of pole-vaulting from one extreme to another.

There is undeniably merit, therefore, in discussing what would be a profound change in our country’s way of doing politics. But a number of questions have to be asked.

The first is whether ‘political stability’, beneficial though it may be, is itself the be all and end all of all things. Instability is naturally an undesirable state for any country to be in; but excessive stability also implies the near impossibility of removing a corrupt government from power through legal, democratic means.

Stability and freedom are not interchangeable. The world’s most repressive dictatorships are ‘stable’, precisely because they curtail the freedom to ever have them removed from power.  

But what the major parties also ignore is that this new political formation arises precisely out frustration and disillusionment with themselves.  Both now argue that ‘change’ is needed; yet both still claim that change can only come from within the two parties. 

Looking back, history paints a different picture. Both are broadly centrist parties whose only interest is winning the next election. With a few notable exceptions, every alternation of power brought about ‘changes’ that were more cosmetic than substantive.

Gonzi, Muscat and now Busuttil all promised to do things differently, but the reality is that nothing much has changed. Maltese politics was and still is associated with nepotism, lack of accountability and transparency, and a pervasive odour of corruption.

Still, is a third party the answer? Any new political formation will face problems faced by AD, PDM and Azzjoni Nazzjonali… fighting to defeat a system geared towards retaining the status quo.

Electoral experience also indicates that a change in culture is needed to convince a traditionally sceptical electorate, which has repeatedly chosen to democratically retain the two-party system, with all its flaws.

It is no easy task, and the chances of success hinge on how well Marlene Farrugia reads the popular mood. She has so far indicated that the party will be centre-left and look at attracting disgruntled Labour voters. Already, it seems that Farrugia has not tapped into a much broader groundswell of discontent, which goes far beyond any ideological difference between two broadly similar parties.

Surveys indicate that the rise in openness to third party politics coincides with disillusionment experienced with both parties, and a simultaneous increase in perceptions of corruption. If a new political party seeks to simply replace one of the existing ones, it will have failed in the bigger picture.

A final question is how the new party would impact the prevailing political balance. Farrugia’s intentions may be to attract Labour voters… but these have historically shown themselves to be immovable. At most, the core Labour voters will stay at home as they did in 1998. It’s the PN which has a bigger chunk of fluid voters among its core who have – as shown in the 2013 general election and in the 2004 and 2009 European Parliament elections – voted for other parties. 

So a new political party will most probably be more attractive to PN-leaning voters than Labour voters… which could give rise to the same endemic identity issues that plague both Labour and PN.

Lastly, it would be a pity if AD – which despite its successive electoral failures has stoically resisted all temptations to disband – were to be absorbed by a new political formation with an equally uncertain future. Despite its failings, AD has consistently stood up for environmental and social justice and human and civil rights. Its loss would not only leave a vacuum in the political spectrum, but it would also mean that voters would be denied a credible alternative to the two larger parties, with its clear vision and identity.  

More in Editorial