Third time lucky? | Arnold Cassola

Veteran Green soldier Arnold Cassola is aware that this will be perceived as a ‘do-or-die’ election for AD. But he is confident that he can ‘do’ without ‘dying’.

In many respects, the 2014 European elections represent a potential milestone for Malta’s Green Party. Traditionally, Alternattiva Demokratika has always fared better at European (and local council) level than in national elections, even though its chairman Arnold Cassola never quite recaptured his historic success of 2004, when he rocked the establishment by unexpectedly garnering 23,000 first-count votes.

All the same, there seems to be a lot going for the greens right now, at least on paper. With the joint controversies of spring hunting and the Marsaxlokk LNG tanker suddenly reaching fever pitch, there is no shortage of environmental causes to latch onto. Perhaps even more significant is the recent boom in construction and development as a result of a relaxation of MEPA regulations.

These were after all precisely the sort of issues that led to mass protests against the rationalisation schemes in 2005, only coming from a different administration, which lends considerable weight to AD’s consistent claim that the two parties are in fact just mirror images of one another (a view often summed up in just four letters: ‘PLPN’).

All things told, then, it would seem the environment is very firmly back on the agenda. This is surely good news for a party that has always taken clear positions on all these issues, as opposed to the PN and PL, neither of which can realistically pose as environmental champions.

So when I meet Arnold Cassola I find him brimming with cautious confidence, even though his demeanour also suggests a vague unease. After 25 years of activity in the political scene, he is well aware that observers consider this a ‘do-or-die’ election for AD, and perhaps even for Cassola himself. So what is the atmosphere among the Green Party at the moment? And how does Cassola rate his own chances of election?

“We have to keep our feet on the ground. I won’t deny that it’s tough, but it is certainly not impossible.”

Cassola adds that the people he meets from various backgrounds nearly all tell him the same thing: how tired they are of the traditionally confrontational style of politics that seems to have grown worse, not better, in recent years and months. “I get the impression that there is a genuine hunger for a more serious, even a more European approach to politics. And people are not getting that from the main two parties.”

At the risk of pooping on AD’s parade, its very success in 2004 may also return to haunt it. On that occasion, Cassola failed to get elected despite an impressive tally of votes. And the prevailing arguments of disillusionment with the larger parties were roughly the same. How, then, can he be confident of election this time round, when polls indicate a far more modest result for the Greens?

Cassola is quick to point out a significant difference between this and previous elections. The addition of a seat to Malta’s representation in Brussels and Strasbourg has reduced the national quota by a full 7,000 votes: making the target considerably more attainable now than in ’04.

Besides, the complexities of Malta’s byzantine electoral system may also work to AD’s benefit. The past two EP elections have illustrated just how important the co-called ‘inheritance’ system is in getting elected. Cassola reminds me how the last two or three seats to be filled always rely heavily on second, third, fourth and even higher count votes. “Having a large number of number ones is naturally important, but the way the system works – even if the other parties often try to camouflage this fact – you can get elected even with a healthy amount of inherited votes.”

Meanwhile there are other factors that give the Greens cause to hope. Cassola points out how the dynamics of Maltese politics have changed over the years. “Younger voters in this election – those under 40 – have spent most of their lives under a Nationalist administration. Now, for the first time, they also have some experience of Labour government. When campaigning I keep meeting people in this category who tell me that they have ‘tried them both’ and have been disillusioned – now let’s see what you can offer…”

The extent of disillusionment with the PN was clearly illustrated by the result of last year’s general election. The equivalent disenchantment with Labour has yet to be properly quantified, but Cassola tells me he encounters evidence of it everywhere he goes.

“A lot of people who would normally vote Labour are concerned at how the party has changed and no longer seems interested in championing social issues, even if the need for social politics has arguably never been higher.”

He tells me how he meets pensioners who are worried about making ends meet on only 400 euros a month; people struggling to raise families on the minimum wage – “or less, as many of them will be precariously employed” – and where, in the past, these people always turned to Labour for protection, they now find the PL more interested in wooing the world’s billionaires and cultivating a ‘business-friendly’ image at all costs.

“There is also an element of loss of trust, not just because of individual scandals such as the Cyrus Engerer issue, but also because they perceive that the old practices they voted against last year have been retained. We are still seeing contracts awarded by direct order and as in previous years, tenders are still loaded in favour of certain applicants at the expense of others.”

Cassola has even heard of cases where tenders were continually re-issued until the contract was won by the ‘right’ applicant’. “We can all see how there isn’t a level playing field, and how the meritocracy promise of last year has simply fizzled out after much fanfare.”

Yet another factor contributing to an apparent slump in political interest, he maintains, is the fact that the European dimension of this election has been drowned out by a chorus of partisan and sometimes eminently parochial political messages. AD, he tells me with a glimmer of pride, is the only party in this election to be really campaigning on European issues, with a view to forging a better Europe.

At the same time, however, polls do not especially favour AD at the moment. Cassola admits this is a cause for concern but points towards the fact that the margin of error is wide enough to conceal the true extent of AD’s support. There is also an additional factor: polls asking for voter preference will normally reflect only first-count votes, leaving the issue of inheritance open to the imagination.

But rather than speculate on how many votes the Greens feel they might receive, let us talk about why people should consider voting Green. AD has after all been in existence for a quarter of a century, and it has conspicuously failed to grow in any substantial terms. Would this not also be an indication that, while tired of the other parties, people simply haven’t warmed to AD? Why should they suddenly warm to Cassola’s party precisely now?

The AD chairman here indicates that, like its share of the vote, the actual size of the party is often misrepresented. “I may be the face of AD, alongside Carmel Cacopardo, or Ralph Cassar, or Mario Mallia. But it doesn’t mean we’re the only people in AD.”

This year the party has roped in a record number of young volunteers and Cassola is encouraged both by their number and their age, which bodes well for the future. But he admits that the political atmosphere in the country, even now in 2014, remains unconducive to open public support.

“The fact is that some people cannot be seen to support us, even for professional reasons. Civil servants are precluded from working for political parties, and in some cases even people in private employment face problems with their employers. Bear in mind we don’t employ people. All our aides are volunteers.”

Nonetheless Cassola prides himself on the respect his party receives, even from people who make it clear that they do not support AD electorally. “You’d be surprised by how many people respect us precisely for our resilience, for our adherence to principles, despite the odds. And respect counts for a lot in our party. It gives us strength on carry on.”

Coming to the reasons for voting AD, Cassola makes the case that Malta’s interests will be best served by a healthy representation across all the European Parliament’s political groupings.

“It is important to vote because you have the possibility to choose who you think are the best six people to represent Malta. And a vote for the Greens is truly a vote for a better Malta within a better Europe, with a vision towards sustainability and greater rights. A vote towards a greater representation of all Maltese. A vote for energy: a real alternative energy, contrary to ‘positive energy’ slogans that pay lip-service to equal opportunities for all. And it is a vote for a real change from that all political malaise of bickering and blame.”

Having a Green MEP, he goes on, is also a guarantee that other issues that are of concern to citizens – but which have traditionally been ignored by the larger parties – may receive the proper attention they deserve.

One issue that continues to dominate the national agenda is immigration, and it is an issue that is likely to pose a headache to AD, which has always championed a humane approach to the phenomenon when an increasing number of people clearly do not share this sentiment at all.

Even here, however, Cassola reasons that people concerned with immigration should also consider voting Green for that very reason.

“The other parties talk about immigration but they do not offer any practical solutions. Of all the international parties contesting this election, it is only the Greens that propose changing the international treaties that have a direct effect on the local situation.”

Neither the EPP nor the S&D group has included a reform of Dublin II on their respective manifestos. Yet this treaty is the primary reason why so many asylum seekers end up ‘stuck’ in Malta, unable to circulate freely in the rest of the EU, and in many cases unable to be deported. Labour and PN both agree that it needs to change yet neither party has so far succeeded in persuading their European allies to push for the desired change.

“The real situation is that the two parties are content to blame the EU for the situation. They keep saying that the EU has let us down. But who is ‘the EU’? The institutions that make decisions include the Council of Ministers, which is composed of the 28 prime ministers…”

When it comes to changing such treaties as Dublin II, it is only the heads of state that can collectively decide to take the plunge. “So far Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel have made it clear they do not want to change the rules. But people don’t say ‘Merkel has let us down’. Instead they blame the EU, when all along the EU is a work in progress. It can be changed for the better; but to make the change, you also have to vote for the people who are willing to commit themselves to bringing this change about.”

This tendency to ‘blame the EU’, he continues, works both ways. “It is not just that the other parties make the EU responsible for all the things they themselves have been unable to solve, but they also take credit for the benefits of EU membership. Take Labour’s Youth Guanrantee, for example. It is actually a proposal by the European Greens. The Greens persuaded all parties to endorse it. Yet Muscat made it his own initiative.”

Sticking to the immigration issue, there is also a widespread perception that the EU is powerless to actually make a difference. How would Cassola counter this criticism?

“I disagree that the EU cannot do anything about it. But for Malta’s voice to be heard we need the broadest support possible in the European Parliament. The other parties don’t like to admit this, but on their own, neither their MEPs nor their entire political grouping can make a difference.

“Labour, for instance, claim that by voting for its candidates you would be voting for Martin Schulz as president of the European Commission [note: Schulz has promised to work towards a common immigration policy]. But the reality is that whoever gets elected will have to work with all groups to make this happen. Relative majorities are not enough.”

In this context, the European Greens, though much a smaller delegation than the EPP or S&D, can become crucial allies to Malta’s interest. “The 60 Green MEPs become instrumental in obtaining a compromise. Just imagine how much stronger Malta’s position in Europe will be, if it had representation in that group as well…”

Cassola’s argument may resonate with moderates who view the matter as a logistical problem that can be addressed through European intervention, but it is unlikely to sway a sizeable voter segment that seems uninterested in rational arguments. The complexity of this issue was forcefully brought home this week, when the Broadcasting Authority belated pulled a campaign spot by Imperium Europa which aired many of the same popular concerns – namely, that immigrants may carry infectious diseases, have contributed to an increase in crime and to a devaluation of property.

This issue alone may pose a quandary to a party that also champions freedom of speech. How does Arnold Cassola respond to the view that sweeping such concerns under the carpet may be counter-productive in the long-term, and possibly give rise to even further racism in future?

“Hate speech and incitement to racial hatred are considered to be illegal in most democratic countries, apart from going against the basic tenets of human dignity and respect,” he replies.

“Any form of incitement towards racial hatred should, in my opinion, be banned. Migration issues cannot be solved through empty words and hate speech. Nor by using and imitating Nazi symbols or threatening those who do not agree with you.”

Cassola insists that institutional reform should remain the priority, reiterating that his party remains the only one in this election that is focusing on the real problems instead of the imaginary ones.

Ultimately, he adds, Imperium’s controversial TV spot serves only to remind people of the dangers of a resurgence of extreme right politics.

“A vote for AD is also a vote to halt the far-right’s message of hatred, violence and division.”