Politics has become a circus | Andrew Azzopardi

University lecturer and broadcaster Andrew Azzopardi argues that our fascination with politics is in part a media construct, to which younger generations no longer subscribe

Andrew Azzopardi
Andrew Azzopardi

It has often been observed that Malta seems to lead a double life. On one level, there is the public sphere to which we are all exposed via the media; and which has increasingly come to be dominated by politics, politics and more politics. Separately, however, there is also the Malta in which people of all opinions and backgrounds tend to rub shoulders at cafes and in bars, watch football or the Eurovision Song Contest, and generally go about their business with little regard to the heated political debate of the moment (until, of course, an election comes along… in which case the public sphere once again takes over).

As someone who takes an interest in what makes this country of ours tick, I have always been fascinated by the thin red line that divides these two Maltas. How much of our apparent obsession with party politics is, in fact, real… and how much of it a figment of our collective imagination?

It looks like I am not alone in asking this question. Andrew Azzopardi is a senior lecturer at the University of Malta; his area of specialisation ‘media, youth and politics’. A journalist and broadcaster in his own right, he has often publicly questioned the extent to which political perceptions match up to the situation on the ground.

“It is a curious phenomenon,” he begins in his University office, as I ask him for his views on Malta’s endless fascination with party politics. “First of all, we have a love-hate relationship with politics in Malta. Just like we have a love-hate relationship with the Church. We can do without the Church, but at the same time… we can’t do without the Church. Same with politics: we can live without it, but in fact we choose not to. You can interpret this phenomenon in different ways. One interpretation would be that the Maltese people have a strong sense of civic duty. They love their country… and they are so keen to shake off the yoke of colonialism that they get involved in politics: and because we look at politicians as part of the machinery that can move the country forward, we want to be close to them. That’s one way of looking at it, at any rate…”

There is, however, another less rosy interpretation. “I would think that the truth is somewhere in between: but the other interpretation is that we are so insecure as a nation, that we need someone to ‘hold our hands’, so to speak. If you feel unsafe or insecure, you will want to rub shoulders with people who wield power – or who transmit the message that they wield power – for your own security. It’s a bit like cavemen: if they gathered together, it wasn’t because they liked the smell of each other’s fur… it was a question of survival, of safety in numbers.”
This, Azzopardi adds, might also contribute to the sense of tribalism that underpins Maltese politics: there is an almost instinctive drive to be part of a larger group.

“Yet another interpretation is that our society is immersed in a story… a narrative… in which politics plays a part. It’s not the only part: the same narrative involves going to mass on Sundays… having children… advancing in your career… you could almost describe it as ‘ticking the boxes’. Being a supporter of a political party is one of the boxes to be ticked, along with all the others, to make up the narrative of what it means to be ‘Maltese’…”

All this, he goes on, now has to be viewed in the context of today’s political reality.

“If partisan politics reignited recently, it was mostly because of the disastrous situation the Nationalist Party found itself in before the last election. The only way they could get back on their feet was to emphasise the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. All other things being equal, there was never going to be a hope in hell without that difference…”

But hang on: surely, the ‘us and them’ mentality he describes predates the last election result by several decades. I remember it as a staple of my childhood, and that was in the 1970s. How can he suddenly talk of it in terms of a recent Nationalist invention?

“The Nationalists did not ‘invent’ the divide, no; but it was in their interest to emphasise it, after it had slowly died down. In fact, I would even argue that they had no choice but to emphasise it, because – beneath the surface – there is no real difference between the two parties any more. This is widely known: if you took the PN and repackaged it with a different wrapping, nobody would know the difference. The old notion of ‘ideological differences’ no longer exists. This is true of partisan support, too: people no longer support ‘Labour’ or the ‘Nationalists’. They support ‘Joseph’ or ‘Simon’….”

Before the last election, he adds, this posed a particularly difficult challenge for the Nationalists, because Joseph Muscat – then untested as prime minister – was on the surface more appealing to begin with. “He was reassuring; a good campaigner; he managed to convince even when things were not going his way; when cornered he seemed to perform even better… in brief, he projected a positive image which contrasted with the Nationalists… who, after so long in power, had lost their shine…”

Even today, with all that has happened since Labour came to power, Azzopardi argues that Muscat remains Labour’s biggest asset. “I speak to young people, and when I ask them who they intend to vote for, most – I won’t say all – answer ‘Joseph Muscat’ without even thinking about it. Somehow, in spite of everything, he has retained his popularity. I’ve often said this, but as long as Muscat remains the Labour leader, Labour will continue winning. It would take something extraordinary to change that…”

All this may have been true until fairly recently, but many would argue that the Panama Papers scandal – and, in particular, Muscat’s lacklustre response to it – was precisely the sort of ‘extraordinary thing’ that might dent his aura…

Azzopardi shakes his head. “I disagree. The Panama Papers scandal was certainly a big issue; it has damaged the Labour Party, no doubt about that. But when people vote, they don’t base their vote on issues like that. In the last elections, for example, people didn’t vote Labour solely on the basis of the oil scandal. They couldn’t have, because the oil scandal surfaced only a few weeks before the election… and there were indications that Labour was going to win long beforehand.”

Is he suggesting that an issue as serious as the Panama revelations will not have any impact on the electoral fortunes of the two parties?
“I wouldn’t say ‘no impact’.  Scandals like that might give people the excuse they were looking for… but only to vote how they were going to vote anyway. In the last election, people voted Labour mostly because they wanted lower utility bills… or because they were fed up of Gonzi… or because of all sorts of other things, of which the oil scandal was only one. It may have contributed to the extent of Labour’s majority… but not to the victory itself, which was a foregone conclusion.”

In the case of the present scandal, the election is still two years away. “I think people ultimately vote on bread and butter issues: how much first-time property buyers will save on interest, what tax rate they will be paying… things like that. But still: it is a dangerous tightrope to walk. The Panama Papers might not be an election issue in two years’ time… but at present, it will have given many Nationalist voters who voted Labour in 2013 an excuse to switch back to the PN. Because there are many who are disillusioned. Even without the Panama Papers scandals, the fact remains that the ‘thrill’ of voting Labour in 2013 has clearly gone…”

All the same, Azzopardi doubts that the effect of this disillusionment will be enough to dislodge Muscat’s administration. “If you take all the mistakes made by this government since 2013, and put them side by side: Gaffarena, the Café Premier, the power station that was not delivered on time, and now the Panama papers… on paper, they should be enough to conclude that Labour has lost its majority outright. There are clear signs that things were not done right. In the case of Gaffarena alone, there were indications that politicians were in bed with entrepreneurs: something which irritates a lot of people. The Panama scandal embarrassed the entire country on an international level. Rationally and logically, one would think this is enough to cost a government an election.”

Yet there is statistical evidence that this is not the case. Labour has undeniably lost support since 2013: but our most recent survey indicates that, if an election were held today, Muscat would still win comfortably with a 10,000 vote majority. How does Azzopardi account for this?
“One thing I notice talking to young people is that the old stereotype of Maltese voters being firmly stuck in their ways is beginning to wane. It might be true of the older generations, but younger voters today tend to make up their minds on the day of the election… if not in the polling booth itself. One consequence of this is that it is a fallacy to reason that the last election result has any bearing on the next one: as though voters use their vote to build on their previous one. I would say that, in today’s political climate, the race starts from the same line with every election…”

But that seems to suggest that Muscat could easily lose, when Azzopardi has only just argued the opposite.

“It sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t really. Like I said earlier, people do not necessarily base their voting intentions on scandals like the Panama papers. And they tend to base their allegiance on the charisma of the party leader, rather than on the party itself, or anything it represents. Another consideration to bear in mind is that, each year, there are between 4 and 5,000 first-time voters. That makes a big difference. Let’s say that, in five years, it amounts to 16 or 17,000 new voters. Those are 16,000 votes you can’t simply rely on any more. You can’t say that, because their parents traditionally vote for one party or the other, so will they. These new voters are a Pandora’s Box…”
At this point, a contradiction seems to appear. If new voters, year in, year out, no longer feel bound by the ancestral ties of their parents’ allegiance… shouldn’t there be a corresponding reduction in partisan pique over time? Shouldn’t partisan tribalism find itself on the wane? It seems, however, that the opposite is happening. The party-political tempo is constantly on the rise, and is arguably at its most tense today since the 1980s…

“To begin with, I can’t speak on behalf of Malta’s youth, because it is hardly a homogenous sector. You will find youths who are more partisan than either Joseph Muscat or Simon Busuttil. But in general, there has been a change in attitude towards politics. The ‘partisan tribalism’ you mention, for instance. How real is it? Personally, I think that much of it is a construct of the political media.

“There was a time when it was rampant… when you wouldn’t sit next to someone on a bus because he or she was Labour/Nationalist, for example. But that sort of concrete, tangible tribalism hardly exists anymore. People have to a large degree seen through the illusion: they can tell that, if you ignore the rhetoric and look only at where the parties stand on issues – social policy, the elderly, persons with disability, etc – there is not much to distinguish between them. This is why the party-owned media are trying so hard to keep the ‘us and them’ perception alive. At the moment it’s the Nationalists who most need to create this perception… it’s always the opposition party that stands to gain more from partisan tribalism. Are people buying it, though? I have my doubts.”

Coming back to his earlier point about younger voters, Azzopardi suggests that this all-important segment seems to subscribe more to Muscat’s Labour model than to its PN counterpart. “I can’t say this with any certainty, but the impression I get is that younger voters are still more attracted to the perceived ‘crispness’ and ‘freshness’ of the Labour Party’s image. Somehow, in spite of everything, that image is still there…”

Azzopardi therefore expects that Muscat’s tried-and-tested campaigning skills will once again be enough to seem him through in 2018… provided, of course, nothing ‘extraordinary’ happens (again).

“I think Joseph Muscat will reinvent himself by the next election. He will repackage the Labour product, and people will buy into it once more…”

But what does this tell us about the state of politics in Malta? If Azzopardi’s predictions are correct, the underlying message is slightly disconcerting. It means that elections are decided by nothing more than exterior packaging… the glitz and glamour of a slick campaign, with little thought to actual issues of governance and administration.

“Let me put it to you this way: there are statistics to indicate that politics – not just in Malta – is losing its credibility. If you look at Eurobarometer polls, the signs are clear. Among younger respondents in particular, it is clear that politics is becoming a joke. Politicians have become the jesters of our society – the entertainers, objects of fun and ridicule. You want to have a laugh? Just talk about the Panama Papers. Or watch Marlene Farrugia’s speech in parliament, then make a spoof about it on the Internet. Politics has become one big carnival.

And I’m not surprised, because when you look at people’s concerns in the real world… none of them is reflected in the political discourse of the moment. The interests of the parties have overtaken the issues that people actually care about. How can they take politics seriously, when politics has lost sight of its main objective…?”

He pauses. “You know what I’d do to address this issue? I’d introduce compulsory ‘sensitivity training’ to anyone entering politics, so that they might understand the responsibility they are going in for. This is not a game. There are people whose livelihoods depend on the decisions and actions of politicians. People trying to put their parents into a home, or who are waiting for a planning permit to fix a window… small things, perhaps, but important to the people who are affected. Politics has lost sight of all this. It has become a circus.”