The cost of adulation

Intense, uncritical fanaticism displayed in the celebrity welcome for Joseph Muscat and Lawrence Gonzi in educational institutions is a bad omen for Maltese democracy.

Spot the party leader...
Spot the party leader...

Clearly, Labour has transformed itself in a way which makes the party's image palatable to younger people with a post-secondary education. Over the past years, Joseph Muscat has successfully engineered a presidential movement which comes across as a mildly more social-liberal version of the Nationalist Party in its best days.

Like the Nationalist Party, the PL claims that it represents all classes and all sectors of society and avoids any hint of social conflict except that against the "clique" - a very elastic term which is appealing to anyone who feels cut off from the power networks: for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

Surely, one major advantage Joseph Muscat has over Lawrence Gonzi is that he starts the race with a substantial advantage and his overriding concern is not to lose the Nationalists who have migrated to his party. Therefore, his message has to be inclusive. 

On the other hand, Gonzi starts as an underdog who desperately needs to sow the seeds of doubt among voters. To achieve this aim, Gonzi has relied on highly divisive shenanigans in the media to promote a message which is divisive by its own nature, let alone when entrusted in the hands of fanatics, thus weakening his own case against Labour.  

This has helped Muscat evade sensible questions on vital matters like his commitment to issue an expression of interest instead of a tender for the privately-owned gas terminal and power station. 

On his part, Muscat positively speaks of rising above partisan tribalism but he does not refrain from promoting a new more overpowering tribalism based on adulation for the "national" leader who has replaced the party leader.   

He even goes as far as presenting himself as a founder of a "second republic", betraying Bonapartist aspirations, without even committing himself on major issues like electoral reform which he will delegate to some sort of assembly.

Muscat's approach to politics is epitomised by a TV spot which intelligently picks on Simon Busuttil's "face of a Nationalist" gaffe by presenting a group of energetic youths with a Maltese flag face painting which gives an impression of totalising uniformity which although effective, is somewhat creepy and dystopian. The uniformity of faces is reminiscent of a 'brave new world' where diversity is crushed in the name of a national consensus.

The hero's welcome given to Muscat amplifies this sensation of Labour's ideological vacuum in his visits to educational institutions, something that is reminiscent of the PN's antics prior to the 2008 election. 

One cannot forget that the PN sowed the seats of presidentialism through GonziPN and is now facing a 'turbo' version of its own pre-2008 campaign. One thing Labour has shown in this campaign is that it can be slicker than the Nationalist Party.

Even this time around, Gonzi was given a rousing welcome at the Junior College, which seemed orchestrated to match Muscat's triumphal antics. This was amply promoted in the State media.

The message sent to young voters is that fanaticism and adulation is the best way through which they can register their political opinion.

More refreshing was the Insite debate between the three political leaders, where the three leaders were asked about concrete issues. 

Although not devoid of the "rent-a-crowd" antics of both major parties, students in the hall cheered clear proposals like same sex marriage and decriminalisation of soft drugs championed by Green Party leader Michael Briguglio, who left a generally positive impression on those present at the debate. 

Surprisingly, as the campaign progresses, the electorate is showing a yearning for discussion of ideas which go beyond the national consensus, and many are openly questioning the 'electoral supermarket', where expectations are being raised sky-high despite the bleak realities around us. 

My hunch is that in this campaign, the increasingly heterogeneous 'middle class' has been misrepresented and misunderstood. Both major parties tend to forget that new reality of young people hailing from a working class background who have advanced to post-secondary institutions and the professions. These will inevitably have a leading role to play in the future of Maltese politics, marrying a degree of left-wing sensibility with a firmly ingrained social liberalism. Surely, the middle class is no longer divided along the lines of demarcation which separated the Stricklandian from the Nationalist elites.   

Five years ago, the debate was characterised by a crowd which was clearly hostile to Alfred Sant. This time around, the debate was characterised by a crowd which was more hostile to Lawrence Gonzi. This suggests that with this campaign, Labour were more organised and was successful in dispelling the image that university is intrinsically hostile to Labour.

Although the demonstration of support for Muscat is partially orchestrated, this also reflects a shift of allegiances.

During the debate, Muscat played safe throughout, insisting that civil partnerships for gay people will not be equivalent to marriage and defending the right of the Church to nominate a representative on the university s enate. Instead, Muscat - in his populist vein - promised a car park for University students. But Gonzi could not counter this nonsense due to persistent shortcomings of the Arriva bus system, giving Green Party chairperson Michael Briguglio - who described Transport Malta as the most incompetent authority in Malta - another opening.   

Ultimately, Muscat's electoral strategy is paying off, helped by the numerous gaffes by PN deputy leader Simon Busuttil and company, and the unfolding of the oil procurement scandal, even if Muscat's project lacks any sharp edges and looks increasingly bland. 

Muscat also looks increasingly cocky in the face of spontaneous and orchestrated adulation. This weakens his appeal as a statesman who is liked but who retains that sense of respectful detachment which characterised Eddie Fenech Adami and Dom Mintoff, who were loved but also feared in different ways. 

In fact, surveys by different organisations point at a plebiscite for Labour on 9 March. But this raises the question: how desirable is a barren political landscape solely dominated by a party which seeks to represent all and sundry and a weak and discredited opposition which used to represent the same totalitarian aspiration? 

If joseph muscat is able to pull off his unique vision of transforming maltese political culture then any adulation is well earned.
If joseph muscat is able to pull off his vision of transforming m