[WATCH] Alfred Sant: ‘Voters irked by clientelism competition between ministers’

Former Labour prime minister and MEP Alfred Sant has bowed out of politics after a 40-year career. He offers his observations and wisdom on the MEP election result, the government and politics in this interview with Matthew Farrugia

Former Labour leader Alfred Sant (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Former Labour leader Alfred Sant (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Alfred Sant warns against a “competition of clientelism” within government that is irking the electorate with the former Labour leader pointing his finger at the oversized Cabinet. 

“I won’t be popular by saying this but the fact that there are so many ministers and parliamentary secretaries all with their own customer care adds to the clientelism competition between them,” Sant tells me as we sit down in his MEP Fgura office. 

Sant is now a retired politician, and his office is slowly being dismantled. Nonetheless, his observations carry with them the judiciousness of someone with a lifetime experience of politics. 

He insists the multiple customer care offices create “big strategic problems” for government. “This happened in the Siġġiewi housing estate case where the way that was carried out was not good,” he tells me with reference to the 99 voters who were registered on social housing units in the locality when these were not yet habitable. 

His observations come in the aftermath of local and MEP election results that show how the Labour Party had its supermajority slashed. 

Sant notes that while the electorate seemed to punish the PL in government - something which he argues is to be expected in such an election - the Nationalist Party did not seem to benefit enough from the result. He attributes this to the PN’s lack of ideological determination and its negative attitude. 

Sant states that one should focus on the performance of independent candidates. While admitting that this trust in independent candidates could not be attributed to any single factor, he says it shows that the two big parties are not adequately responding to the challenges of today’s society. 

“They’re still discussing what’s going on with the language of yesterday,” he says. 

The former PL leader says despite this, party loyalty still exists, although many feel they are caught between the loyalty for their party and their disgruntlement towards the way government is responding to challenges.  

And Sant’s advice to new politicians: “Stay in touch with what people experience, while refraining from closing yourselves off in a bubble.”

The following is an excerpt from the interview.   

Follow the full interview also on Facebook and Spotify.

You’ve spoken about clientelism. Some say that the PL’s majority was reduced because they didn’t ‘help’ people enough, while others say that the PL has become a customer care office. Which one of these is more accurate? 

It’s probably both of those factors that influenced [the result]. When clientelism is in your face it starts to irk people, and I think it has started to irk people. It doesn’t only irk those who don’t get something out of it, there were those who didn’t get what they expected, and so they didn’t vote in the way they were expected to according to their beliefs…

I won’t be popular by saying this but the fact that there are so many ministers and parliamentary secretaries all with their own customer care adds to the clientelism competition between them. This multiplies itself in a way that it creates big strategic problems. This happened in the Siġġiewi housing estate case where the way that was carried out was not good.

If I’m not mistaken it’s the largest Cabinet we’ve had in a while… 

I don’t think this started today under this government. This has been going on since time immemorial. The PN in government was known for its clientelism. They were more discreet, more subtle, more organised most of the time. I think that some things they did were used as a model, but when you scale it up, you’ll have a problem.

After the election result, we heard the Prime Minister talk about unpopular decisions. He said the time has come to address issues such as environmental degradation and excessive development. Is it realistic for government to make these decisions now, a few years before a general election?

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to address these things. Three years is not a short time, they say a week in politics is a long time. It’s crucial to have clear targets to be achieved, how they will be achieved, and that promises are kept… 

I think there’s also a need for monitoring goals after they’re achieved. Sometimes when you rush, you’re exposed to other dangers linked to poor governance, corruption, and people who are not cut out for their job. I think there’s enough time for these issues to be addressed, but how they’re addressed will be crucial.

We’ve heard from people such as Evarist Bartolo say that these issues should have been addressed after the PL won a huge majority in the last general election. Do you think that the people trust the government to make these changes now when they could have done so before? 

I’ve been involved in politics for 40 years. Year after year I’ve heard of failed objectives by many governments, including the Fenech Adami and Gonzi administrations, as well as the Mintoff and Mifsud Bonnici years. Government should do what it can while it has the chance. When the people see that government delivers, they will have faith. That doesn’t mean that votes won’t be lost, or that mistakes won’t be made. But if the project goes forward well, I think that government has more than enough political capital to deliver.

It’s a known fact that the PL is no longer only the worker’s party. It’s a party that’s close to businesses, large and small. Do you think that these tough decisions risk irking many groups that have trusted the party along the years? 

That danger is always present. But at the same time the groups that you’re referring to are threatened by what’s going on. Whether it’s massive developments, barbaric buildings at times, and a lack of attention to the environmental impacts are all angering them. That anger can eventually explode politically and economically. I think they have every interest to understand that something needs to be done, even if they complain.

This week the Prime Minister also mentioned women’s rights in a clear reference to abortion. We remember last year’s scenes when government tried to amend the abortion law and was met with great opposition. Do you think that government could make another U-turn and try to amend the law further?

I can’t say what’s possible because I’m not in government and government has its own strategy. I’m curious to see how those who are pro-choice voted in the last election. I suspect that they were mostly among those who didn’t vote… I also think that the group of people who are in favour of having abortion as an option is much larger than we think.

Do you think that Malta’s abortion law will move towards abortion laws in other countries? 

I think that eventually abortion will be available in Malta. Whether it will be introduced tomorrow or two years or 100 years from now I cannot say.