Towards a one-party democracy | Godfrey Baldacchino

With one of Malta’s two traditional parties in free-fall, sociologist Prof. GODFREY BALDACCHINO speculates on the possible futures of Maltese democracy

Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino
Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino

In a recent opinion piece, you wrote that the ‘two-party system is finally fraying’ as a result of the apparent implosion within the Nationalist Party. But a week is a long time in politics: and besides, you yourself point out the PN has come back from far worse situations in the past (eg, after WW2). Are we writing off the Nationalist Party too early?

I don’t think so, no. A week may be a long time; but seven years is much longer… and that’s how long the PN has been unable to regroup after the 2013 defeat.

As for the situation in 1947 – when the PN registered its worst electoral performance ever - that was very specific: we had just come out of a war, in which for three years we had been bombed by people with whom the Nationalists had very strong sympathies. The circumstances were very exceptional…so exceptional, in fact, that the PN’s share of the vote was just 18%.

We haven’t seen that happen to the Nationalist Party again… and I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon, either; because there are constituencies that will continue to consider themselves represented by the Nationalist Party.

But the emergence of a split within the PN, also implies a split within those constituencies. And the two factions seem to represent different socio-economic strata: with Adrian Delia championing the ‘grassroots’, against a party ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’. From a sociological point of view, do you see any element of a class struggle in the divide?

That’s a very good question. You might remember that Joseph Muscat’s battle-cry, since 2008, has been to ‘build a new middle class’. As a result, he might have succeeded in luring the PN’s traditionally middle-class support-base over to the Labour camp.

This happened partly because there was also huge social mobility and change. The Malta we are living in is completely different from the Malta of 10 years ago… let alone 20, 30 or more. So, something the parties have to cater for in their prognoses, and in their strategies for moving forward, is how to appeal to the new Maltese social realities.

Is there a ‘dark streak’ in Maltese culture?... there seems to be a certain ‘mock-heroism’ associated with individuals who have beaten the system… and who are now getting flak from all people and institutions that are perceived to be ‘self-righteous’

And I don’t just mean the Millennials: for whom politics is a completely different ballgame. I also mean individuals who are becoming residents of Malta… and who presumably, at some point, will become voters as well. How are we reaching out to these people?

Meanwhile, the same political ‘split’ that you described can also be seen to have evolved in the trade union field. Traditionally, the GWU was associated with working class, blue-collar affiliation, with a rump of support in the Dockyard. The UHM, on the other hand, was associated more with the civil service, clerical, managerial and technical grades. That kind of division, I think, has also blurred… to the extent that the Dockyard doesn’t exist anymore, as a stronghold of trade union solidarity.

But the GWU still exists; and so does the UHM. Both unions have grown closer to each other: with the GWU attracting more middle-class members, and the UHM more working-class members… including members coming from different political affiliations, by the way. That is also an evolution of our times.

So the class divide is being transformed. In fact, I think we need to ask ourselves: what is the new basis for social class today? I think that race and ethnicity are increasingly becoming critical markers of social class in Malta.

How do you see this impinging on the PN’s predicament, though? Are you suggesting that the party is not reaching out to emerging social classes?

Whether it is trying to reach out or not, it is evidently not succeeding… at least, if your newspaper’s polls are accurate. Clearly, there is something very wrong with Adrian Delia’s message. He has, so far, failed to enthuse people with his brand of politics; and I think that part of the reason may have to do with the inability to identify a Nationalist Party position on many issues… other than, of course, calling for the removal of people accused of corruption; or calling for reforms of systems that are not working.

And fair enough; if a system is faulty, it needs changing… but into what? The PN has not yet given a clear answer to this question.

Secondly, you have to be able to imagine an alternative government; and it takes a lot of work for a political party in Opposition to present itself as a being ‘on the ball’, and ready to take up the reins of power with responsibility.

These are areas you have to work at. They don’t just fall from the sky…

But the PN under Simon Busuttil did try to present itself as a credible alternative government: by championing the ‘good governance’ cause, which – given all the allegations of the time – made sense, as a political platform. Yet it lost by an even heavier margin. Doesn’t this mean that issues such as corruption do not register too highly among national concerns?

You’re putting your finger on something that I’m still trying to grapple with myself. How do we explain the voters’ response to the allegations of corruption and injustice, that were very much the hallmark of the Nationalist Party’s campaign in 2017?

To be more specific: how do we account for the fact that individuals associated with those issues got re-elected with huge majorities? [Pause] Is there a ‘dark streak’ in Maltese culture? I’m posing this as a question, because I don’t have the answer myself. But there seems to be a certain ‘mock-heroism’ associated with individuals who have beaten the system… and who are now getting flak from all people and institutions that are perceived to be ‘self-righteous’: demanding that we follow the rule of law, etc.

We keep criticising the system… but in reality, it works. It has delivered the resignation of Malta’s strongest Prime Minister to date

In a way, this is also a class issue. To give an example: I use public transport quite a lot, and I hear a lot of people talking on the bus… and there is a certain, dare I say ‘Trumpian’ aspect to it: an underclass revelry, in how these villains keep getting away with it. They are regarded as ‘champions’… the ‘good guys’… the ones who are unfairly picked on by all these institutions trying to bring down ‘our’ government…

Coming back to the political system as a whole: if Malta’s traditional two-party model is indeed about to collapse, as you suggest… what do you envisage will rise to replace it?

I would say that it’s already evolving into something else… though it is possibly too early to say what, exactly, it will morph into.

People have mentioned various possibilities, modelled on other countries such as Japan, Singapore or Sweden.

In each of these countries, over the past 20 years, there has been one mainstream political party – typically centre, in terms of ideology – acting as a broad tent, which allows that party to maintain a winning coalition of interests… with smaller parties on the side, none of which capable of securing a majority. It is possible that a similar situation will evolve locally…

Might I propose another analogy? Italy in the 1980s: when there was a coalition of five parties – the ‘Pentapartito’ – coming together to keep the Communists out of power. Given the emergence of new political forces – for instance PD, and NGOs such as Repubblika and Occupy Justice – do you see that as a possible future for Maltese politics?

The civil society groups you mention have not formed political parties yet… but they might: just like the ‘Moviment ghal-Ambjent’ became Alternattiva Demokratika in the late 1980s. I think that, historically, is the only case where a civil society movement evolved into a political party; and it’s still there, all these years later.

The difference, however, is that it is much easier to form a coalition of smaller parties when there is a common objective… or enemy. After the heady days of independence, liberalisation and EU membership, what are the exciting strategic objectives of the PN in 2020? I am still trying to find out.

Isn’t ‘opposition to Labour’ the common objective, though?

No, I don’t think so. The Labour Party is not a ‘common enemy’ to all those groupings. Many of the practices they have complained about in recent times, would possibly have occurred with different politicians in power... because the system is what it is, regardless who’s in power.

I like to call it a game of ‘musical chairs’: we change incumbents, we change individual politicians… but what else really changes? Take the appointment of judges and magistrates, for instance. What system could possibly guarantee that the judiciary is impartial? And are we going to completely eliminate the role of the Prime Minister in that function?

If so, wouldn’t the Prime Minister still remain involved indirectly… for instance, by nominating the people who would be involved in nominating judges?

So what sort of system would you consider ideal for a country with Malta’s size and dynamics?

It’s not a question of having an ‘ideal’ system. The two-party system has its advantages: particularly to the party in power, which enjoys a monopoly on most decision-making systems…

But that’s an advantage for government, not for the country…

It’s an advantage for government, certainly, but it could also translate into an advantage for the country. Let me put it another way: any system is going to create opportunities for politicians; and it will evolve in response to the prevailing political culture. Then, once you have a system in place, it will spawn a political culture of its own.

Here in Malta, for the past 50 years we have inherited a system where the Prime Minister is basically a benevolent dictator. The power of the Opposition is extremely limited; and the government has practically zero obligation to adopt its recommendations. There is only an obligation to ‘consult’… but what does that really mean, in practice?

Nonetheless, that’s the way the system has always worked. And one of its advantages is that it is not caught in gridlock. Look at what’s happening in the USA right now, for instance… in Congress and the Senate. That kind of ambivalence cannot happen in a system like Malta’s.

But do you think the national interest is really served under those circumstances?

Yes. We keep criticising the system… but in reality, it works. It has delivered the resignation of Malta’s strongest Prime Minister to date; as well as the election of a complete outsider – as opposed to someone associated with Muscat – to replace him.

There have been strong pressures for change; there are ministers who now admit that something was rotten in the State of Denmark before… isn’t this all evidence of a functioning system?

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