From Malta to Greece: Are electorates immune to scandal?

On Sunday the Greek conservative government ended up winning by 20 points over its nearest rival a few weeks after 57 young people lost their life in a railway accident blamed on official incompetence. JAMES DEBONO draws parallels between Malta and Greece asking whether electorates are becoming immune to scandal

Judging by reactions on social media, quite a few people were surprised by last Sunday’s MaltaToday poll showing minor gains by the Labour Party and its leader Robert Abela.

The survey came after a tumultuous week in which the news cycle was dominated by damning revelations on the hospitals concession and Abela’s predecessor Joseph Muscat.

The survey still showed Labour a long way from a 16-point lead it enjoyed at the beginning of the year over its rival, the Nationalist Party. That lead was slashed in March soon after the courts revoked the hospitals concession.

But in a déjà vu of the incredulous reaction in PN circles to the results of general elections held in 2017 and 2022, many keep asking ‘how is it possible that Labour holds on to a comfortable majority despite all the scandals which are devouring it from within?’ Some even wonder whether Malta is a special case where electorates are immune to corruption.

Yet the result of elections in Greece announced on Sunday evening suggest that Malta is not so isolated in rewarding a party plagued by scandal, but which is also credited for an impressive economic recovery.

Victory after a national tragedy

In these elections New Democracy led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a scion of the Greek political establishment and the son of a former PM, beat the left-wing Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras by a margin of 20 points.

This was not enough to secure an outright majority and a run-off election in which the largest party will be awarded bonus seats, is now expected at the end of June.  But the result came as a big surprise, simply because many believed that Mitsotakis would be punished for the major scandals which happened on his watch.

Mitsotakis’s popularity took a massive hit in March after 57 people died in an accident involving  an intercity passenger train which was accidentally put on the same rail line as an oncoming freight train. The country was shocked upon learning that the two trains had travelled for 12km on the same railway line, in opposite directions without anybody noticing. It was later revealed that train stations were poorly staffed and a remote signaling system was not working properly.

The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) also launched an investigation on the misuse of EU funds in a contract for upgrading the signaling system on Greek trains.

In the aftermath of the tragedy thousands of people, many of them university students like the railway disaster victims, staged rallies across Greek cities in protest against the negligence on the part of the government and the rush for profits in the partly privatised sector.

Mitsotakis’s government had already been rocked by a major phone tapping scandal after it transpired that  Nikos Androulakis, head of the center left PASOK party,  had been wiretapped by the national intelligence agency.

The case rekindled memories of the surveillance of opposition politicians under the right-wing military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Concern on the rule of law in Greece even prompted criticism by the Socialists in the European Parliament who initiated a resolution reprimanding the Greek government for its shortcomings.

In response, the European People’s Party requested a discussion on socialist-governed Spain and Malta to be included too. But the  resolution was later  postponed by the Parliaments’ top decision-making body comprised of political groups’ chiefs to avoid interfering in forthcoming elections in Greece and Spain.

Row on opinion polls

Still, with the economy growing at 5.9% in 2022, tourism figures exploding and unemployment falling, opinion polls held before the Greek election still  showed the incumbent PM steadily ahead by around six points in the run-up to the election.

This prompted a bitter reaction from Syriza which called for more transparency on the part of pollsters, asking them to publish the primary data of their surveys.

Tsipras even called on supporters to ignore the polls as party exponents insisted that it was not possible for the ruling party to see its support increasing, just a couple of weeks after the deadly train crash. Still the result was even worse for Syriza than the one anticipated in the polls.

Greek parallels

The Greek conservative victory evokes parallels with the Labour Party’s victories in Maltese general elections in 2017 and 2022. The PL was rewarded for its economic success despite grave concerns on governance issues and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Although formally hailing from different sides of the political spectrum, both the Maltese Labour Party and Greece’s New Democracy have adopted ‘business friendly’ policies to promote economic growth and both have faced accusations of cronyism, collusion with big business interests, inhumane treatment of migrants, environmental degradation and hostility towards journalists.

An example of the latter was the prosecution of four journalists who had exposed the Novartis scandal; a racket in which the pharma giant allegedly paid bribes to Greek officials, politicians, and doctors in public hospitals to boost prescriptions of its drugs.

Novartis acknowledged its role in the scandal in two 2020 settlement agreements with the US Department of Justice and paid US$347 million in fines. However, the current Greek government politicized the affair, insisting that the reports about the case and the investigations into it were ultimately aimed at hurting political allies of the prime minister. The journalists were only acquitted from conspiracy charges in 2022.

Moreover, both governments have been under the international spotlight for the alleged push back of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, a practice denounced by NGOs, but which endeared both governments with xenophobic voters in both countries.

And Greece like Malta has a history of partisan rivalry between two big parties; the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy that dominated Greek politics till the advent of Syriza in 2015, often competing for votes by dispensing political patronage at local level.

But there are also significant differences between the two Mediterranean countries. In Malta the opposition Nationalist Party had lost power to a Labour Party led by Joseph Muscat who emphasised continuity in business-friendly economic policies.   

In contrast, Syriza had taken on both New Democracy and the socialist PASOK, promising a radical break with their corrupt ways while promising to use its mandate to re-negotiate the terms of the financial bailout imposed by the EU and financial institutions.  The latter promise proved to be Syriza’s undoing, paving the way for New Democracy’s comeback in the 2018 election.

And while Syriza had inherited a devastated Greek economy when elected to power in 2015, two years earlier the Labour Party in Malta had inherited a lethargic but stable economy which it rebooted by pushing the accelerator in sectors like construction while opening the employment market to cheap labour from outside the European Union.

Neither has Malta ever came close to the collapse in living standards experienced by millions of Greeks who had to endure pension and pay cuts after their country defaulted on its debt. Malta’s public debt had almost reached 75% at the end of the PN government in 2013, with the incoming Labour administration bringing this down significantly to below 50%. Today, despite heavy outlays on COVID wage supplements and energy subsidies, Malta’s debt remains below 60% of its GDP.

Unlike the Maltese, the Greeks had very little to lose when they voted for Syriza and for a rejection of bailout terms imposed by the EU in a subsequent referendum. But Syriza’s distant victory in 2015 stands as a reminder that when hard-pressed by deteriorating living standards electorates can also demand a radical break with the past, albeit satisfying such expectations may well be a tall order for insurgent parties like Syriza, which can generate an even bigger disappointment.  In this sense Tsipras’s attempt to change Syriza from an insurgent party promising a new dawn into a mainstream party has backfired.

The strong hand at the helm

In fact, New Democracy’s popularity is mostly the result of a yearning for economic stability following a roller coaster decade during which Greece had hit rock bottom.

It was in this context that Mitsotakis warned that the country needed a “strong hand at the helm” in a time of international instability, and that failure to re-elect his party will undermine Greece’s economic rebound after a decade-long debt crisis. And although Malta’s economy has largely bypassed any major crisis, the yearning for stability is one consistent feature in the propaganda of ruling parties. Mitsotakis’s “strong hand at the helm” is itself reminiscent of the “safe pair of hands” image evoked by Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist Party in the face of the challenge posed by Alfred Sant’s Labour Party which was associated with instability.

Even in 2013, the PN warned that Labour would turn Malta into the next Greece with Simon Busuttil warning that Muscat would drive the country against the wall.

Ironically, to dispel this perception of Labour as a disrupting force, Joseph Muscat went to the other extreme of turning Labour into a pro-business party whose deals ended up facilitating corruption and cronyism.

But it is now Abela who is presenting himself as the incarnation of stability while depicting the Opposition as a threat to stability. But this depends on his ability to keep the economy running, a task which in the long term could be jeopardized by the problems unleashed by the accelerated growth spurt under Muscat like the unsustainable pressures on infrastructure.

The PN can easily wear its old clothes to project itself as a reliable manager, in doing so it risks alienating voters who are fed up with Labour but also shun the PN’s cozy relationship with the establishment.

This could be one of the reasons why 16% of PL voters in 2022 are now intent on not voting but would still not trust the PN.

Balancing the conflicting need for stability and change remains one of the biggest challenges for oppositions the world over.