Recipe for implosion | Michael Briguglio

Sociologist and former AD chairperson Michael Briguglio argues that political parties need to engage more with society, or risk being reduced to irrelevance

Sociologist Michael Briguglio
Sociologist Michael Briguglio

It must be an interesting time to be a sociologist in Malta. Society has changed at an impressive rate over the past two decades. From the only country in the Western world to prohibit divorce, Malta is now ranked among the most liberal countries in Europe with regard to other civil liberties, particularly concerning gay rights.

At the same time, however, there has been an undeniable slide backwards in terms of governance, transparency and accountability… ultimately, the pillars on which any modern democracy is built.

In brief, there seems to be a glaring mismatch between society’s expectations, and what political parties are actually delivering. And according to our most recent polls, it seems to be affecting all three mainstream parties.

Labour’s previously unassailable majority is undeniably being eroded. The news is better for the PN, but it still struggles to reclaim the support it lost. Alternattiva Demokratika has meanwhile registered its lowest-ever level of popular support. 

I meet Michael Briguglio – a political activist and former AD chairman, but also a sociologist and keen observer of current affairs – at his University office. What does he make of the current political situation of Malta?

“As regards the governance issue, back in 2010 I had actually written an article about the inevitable problems Labour would face if elected. At the time, Muscat’s PL was projecting itself as a ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ movement. It sounded very inclusive, but it was also a recipe for implosion, in my opinion. When you promise everything to everyone, including many contradictory promises… it might win you an election, but that’s it. Once you win the election, the problems will start cropping up.”

Briguglio points towards the expectations raised, on the one hand, among environmentalists, and on the other, developers and building contractors.

“If you promise environmentalists more rational planning policies, and more stringent regulations… then you tell the developers – who are probably financing your party – that you’re going to do the opposite... the fall-out becomes inevitable.”

The same could be said for many other issues. “The main issue today is governance; surveys confirm that corruption has become a major concern, according to people’s perceptions. We have a government whose strategy was basically to obtain power, but not really to change things… only to ensure that those in power and those around them reap as many advantages as possible. I think there is a limit to how long such a power structure can remain in place…”

The disappointment he alludes to is clearly visible, but at the same time the opposition still lags behind significantly in the polls. Does he see this ‘inevitable’ implosion occurring by the next election?

“Let me put it this way: Labour seemed invincible some time ago… but I think that every oligarchy reaches a peak – and what we are dealing with here is an oligarchy, in my opinion – then faces a downfall. I would say that Labour has no guarantee of winning the next election. I’m seeing disappointment all around, even among Labourites…”

At the same time, Labour still enjoys an improbable nine-seat majority… is it possible that it has been blinded to this reality by its sheer hold on power? 

“Yes. I think it’s going to be Labour’s undoing. It has such a huge sense of superiority – even if you look at the body language of the prime minister, the dismissive tone he uses in interviews... I think power has really gone to this government’s head. You don’t need to go into any deep Freudian analysis, or anything like that. Things really are that simple…”

At the same time, however, the inevitable implosion of the Labour oligarchy only means the return of the Nationalist one instead. And the PN cannot claim the moral high ground on any of these issues (least of all, undeclared assets held in dodgy overseas jurisdictions by Cabinet ministers).

So wouldn’t a pendulum swing back to the Nationalists merely perpetuate the same cycle of corruption and bad governance? 

“Let me put forward different scenarios… I’m not saying I necessarily agree with them, but there are different ways of looking at this. Take the Nationalist Party. Yes, if Labour is outvoted, it would mean a Nationalist government, all other things being equal. Now, if the Nationalists are in power, they might do the same thing and get outvoted again… in which case, we’ll have the pendulum effect you describe. However… and I have absolutely no brief for the PN… Simon Busuttil did something which I think is rather positive, by putting forward a package of good governance proposals. You might say it’s a bunch of hogwash, or a load of spin… but my hunch is that the PN would introduce such policies to be as watertight as possible…”

But the same could be said for Labour’s ‘Taghna Lkoll’ motif. It’s easy to make those proposals in opposition. There is certainly no guarantee that Busuttil’s good governance promise will not go down the same road as Muscat’s ‘meritoccracy’ pledge…

“In that case, the two-party logic dictates that the pendulum will swing back to Labour again. But things are not necessarily restricted to a two-party logic. For example: local council elections cannot be compared to general elections, but people do vote for other parties at that level. I myself was elected to the Sliema local council four times; the same goes for [AD candidate] Ralph Cassar in Attard. The mechanisms are there to move out of the two-party system. Whether people want to do that or not is another question. What you or I may want is not the issue here. Many people want to retain the two-party system…”

This brings us to another dimension. Ultimately, politics is a question of demand and supply. If the popular will is precisely to maintain the two-party system… out of a national culture of pique, perhaps, or because of the perks associated with having ‘your’ party in power, etc. – where does that leave parties like AD, which are trying to break the mould?

“Let’s tackle the demand first; we can talk about supply – i.e., what the parties are offering – later. There are many different categories of voters. We talk of ‘switchers’ and ‘floaters’, for instance. These are social constructs; it’s a question of terminology… but ‘switchers’ are roughly those voters who switch between parties on the basis of which could offer them the best ‘deal’. A floating voter, on the other hand, will not have a preference, but might be swayed by one or more issues that are important to him or her. When it comes to this category, my hunch is that they tend to vote Labour or PN because they consider a Green vote to be a wasted vote. Why?” 

Answering his own question, Briguglio points towards the electoral system first. “It is undeniably tailor-made for two parties, but I strongly believe that a third party can be elected all the same. It is difficult, but not impossible. Another consideration is the specific context of any election. In 2003, for instance, there was the issue of EU accession. For many people, that was more important than having a third party…”

But that consideration is now dead and buried, and still AD has not elevated itself beyond its usual percentage. …

“There are other issues, however. In the last election, when I was leading AD, I knew many people who wanted to vote AD but instead voted Labour. One example would be the issue of gay rights. There were many voters who, on this issue, were probably closer to AD’s position than Labour’s; but they believed that Labour would deliver more because they would be in government…” 

Could it also be because the difference between the three parties has been eroded? We have already seen Labour and PN converge towards the centre on the economy, and also (up to a point) on civil liberties. Now, AD seems to be echoing some of the conservative views of the PN.., for instance, by opposing embryo-freezing. 

This in turn points towards an endemic dilemma in today’s situation. There is now a multiplicity of views and opinions that are simply not represented at all: neither in parliament, nor even in public discourse. My own opinions on things like female reproductive rights, for instance, are still considered anathema by all three parties… even though they would be considered mainstream and normal in most Western European countries. Elsewhere, very different views – for instance, of people who protested against the Muslim public prayer sessions in Msida – are not represented either. 

On both fronts, there seems to be a reluctance to actually represent such voter segments…

“When I was chairperson of AD, it was my strong belief – even if there were differences of opinion within the party – that AD had to search for political niches. Among the niches which existed then, and still exist today, there is definitely the environment… however, using the logic mentioned previously, some people might argue that it would make more sense to vote PN, on the basis that a party in government can achieve more...”

Does this indicate that AD may have been overtaken even on the environmental front?

“No, I don’t think so. AD should definitely remain a voice for the environment, because it is the only party that has a consistent record on this issue. But it cannot focus solely on the environment; it needs to occupy niche issues beyond that sector…”

The one area where AD has also been consistent is civil liberties.

“Certain civil liberties have since been taken up by Labour: for instance, gay rights. On this issue, I feel AD has mellowed out a little. Before the election it was more vociferous, and also spoke out on particular rights. Our manifesto, for instance, talked of full marriage equality. Marriage, not civil unions…”

Briguglio points towards other ‘neglected niches’: especially, the social aspect. “For example, precarious employment. Nobody is speaking about this anymore... not even, surprisingly, the GWU. We’re all talking about how the economy is growing, but… let me give you an example. Last week, there was an article about massage parlours, and how there was an increase in elderly men contracting STDs. But there was nothing about what I call ‘modern-day slavery’; the work conditions of sex workers, for instance. And there are other exploited categories, too. Child-carers, for example. It’s good that the government extended childcare services... but what about the wages paid to child-carers? They are very low, and their responsibilities are very great…”

This, Briguglio argues, marks the main difference between ‘Green’ and ‘Liberal’ parties in the rest of Europe. “Green Parties usually have an interest in the Green economy, which is very important; civil liberties; local issues; and also the social dimension.”

There are other issues, too: including some which AD is against. 

“AD is definitely against abortion, for instance. It’s the only Green Party in Europe to take that stand; even Green Muslim parties agree. But to be fair, that was a consistently democratic decision taken by AD. It wasn’t forced down the party’s throat. Any member is free to attend an AGM and try to change that position. As things have always stood, from 1989 up to today, the vast majority of AD members have always disagreed with that civil right…”

But the issue is not just about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion. In Malta, we have a very archaic law which doesn’t make any exception of any kind whatsoever: not even in cases where the mother’s life might be in danger. In practice, we all know that under such circumstances abortions are indeed carried out… not even the Church objects, because of the ‘double effect’ principle… but there are no guarantees for the future.

We have already seen how the PN, under Lawrence Gonzi, moved decidedly towards the Evangelical Christian position by flirting with groups such as Gift of Life. What if a future government decides to prosecute women who miscarry (as has happened in certain US states); or press murder charges against doctors who perform life-saving, abortifacient surgery? Why does not even AD argue in favour of a more sensible, less draconian legislation? Has it been bullied into submission by extremists?

“I know Arnold Cassola very well, and have enormous respect for him. I mean that very sincerely. It is widely known that we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything; I was the more radical left-winger of the party, he was more on the conservative side. But he really did contribute a lot to AD, and I feel this needs to be acknowledged more. On this issue, I can safely say that his is not a cynical stance. Cassola’s position on abortion is not a case of political opportunism; he genuinely disagrees on principle…”

But the issue goes beyond personal views. Surely, a political party should be more than merely an extension of its leader’s private opinions…

“Agreed. I believe that, whatever one’s private opinion on such matters, there should always be a debate. If nothing else, discussion can serve to strengthen one’s position. And yes, there should be a debate on whether our laws are effective, or how they can be improved. I also firmly believe that one of AD’s roles is to be the party that puts forward certain issues to be debated… issues that the other parties won’t discuss…”

Not so much now, however. On euthanasia, for instance, Cassola even stated that he had ‘no intention to even discuss the issue’…

Briguglio shrugs. “Euthanasia is going to be discussed, whether or not AD takes part. Someone has submitted a letter to parliament, and I assume it will be placed on the agenda for discussion. It was also discussed on Xarabank; half the country will have seen that episode. Cassola is within his rights to state that he disagrees with euthanasia; where I disagreed with him was on ruling out the discussion altogether. I believe that AD needs to hold a more open debate… not just on this issue… even to the extent of inviting non-members to the discussion table. If not, there is a danger that society will be much further ahead than the party…”  

Quoting British sociologist Anthony Giddens, Briguglio points out how the British Labour Party experienced something similar in the 1980s. “Labour lost many elections in sequence, largely because it refused to discuss issues that were considered relevant by large parts of its own electorate. OK, then it moved to the ‘third way’; I won’t discuss the merits of that decision, however. What I am saying is that parties should be open to discussion, even just to have a barometer of where they stand in today’s society. I think that is very important…”

Meanwhile, there is another issue facing AD at the moment. At the last election, AD registered 1.8% of the national vote (with Briguglio at the helm). Our latest polls indicate that they currently stand at 0.8%... which is lower than their first ever electoral performance in 1989. The party has shrunk back to microscopic proportions. How does Briguglio account for this?

“It is a worrying statistic, undeniably. Even the European election results were disappointing. My honest and sincere appeal to AD, as someone who is within the party but not in the executive, is that it needs to hold some kind of forum or convention – call it what you will – where it can discuss even those issues it disagrees with. It is very, very important to have a sense of engagement with society. A hermit engages only with himself. One has to engage with society, even to reassess one’s own position. Your position may be strengthened in the process; or you may realise your positions were wrong… or no longer in synch with society. But that, to me, is what politics is all about. There is a constant need to see where one’s views fit in with those of the rest of the population; interaction has to take place, otherwise a political party may find itself overtaken by the rest of society.”