[ANALYSIS] Simon Busuttil’s national coalition. After Salvu Mallia who else?

Busuttil can only give the PN a chance to return to power by convincing the electorate it will limit its own power: but that can only be in a real coalition with other parties, and not a motley crew of individuals cheering him

Simon Busuttil is setting in motion a “movement” with no formal structures
Simon Busuttil is setting in motion a “movement” with no formal structures

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil wants a  “national coalition against corruption” that he said will open the doors of his party to anyone who wants to join “the fight”. Another leaf taken out of Joseph Muscat’s pre-2013 playbook, it is not – as yet – a leap into modern continental politics, where different parties negotiate a common binding programme to form a formal coalition.

The glue of Busuttil’s church remains trust in the leader. And Salvu Mallia, the spurned TV broadcaster who was first to heed the call, has already made it clear that he would vote against a future Nationalist government if this trust is broken.

So here we are: left with yet another presidential leader setting in motion a “movement” with no formal structures, in a bid to secure a change in government. Sounds like 2013 all over again.

Salvu Mallia’s cautionary tale

For Busuttil, Salvu Mallia is a walking advert and testimonial in the same way as Cyrus Engerer, Kevin Drake, John Bundy and Marisa Micallef had been before the 2013 election.

Mallia provides a narrative for switchers pondering on whether or not to trust the PN again. His political story also stands as a cautionary tale of what happens when a vulture like the PM’s aide Glenn Bedingfield unleashes his poison pen on anyone critical of the government.

Bedingfield is today serving as  Busuttil’s best recruitment agent, in a way that is not different from the way Daphne Caruana Galizia’s poison-pen blog and attacks on PN critics alienated people from the PN before 2013. The only difference is that Bedingfield’s salary is paid by taxpayers.

But how far can Mallia’s testimonial secure long-term change and hold leaders like Muscat and Busuttil accountable when they are elected?

Lobbies like the gay rights movement secure progressive changes thanks to an informal alliance with Labour. So people like Mallia can act strategically to secure their aims: his is that of seeing Muscat’s downfall after Panamagate, the worsening track record in governance, and the unwarranted attacks he endured. Helping the PN win the next election is a logical and automatic choice.

In this frame of mind, Mallia represents unforgiving electors who will punish governments that betray them, by shifting allegiance to the Opposition.

The first-preference vote threat: Salvu Mallia made a logical decision to switch to the party that represents the alternative option to bring about Labour’s defeat
The first-preference vote threat: Salvu Mallia made a logical decision to switch to the party that represents the alternative option to bring about Labour’s defeat

Coalitions for change

But this is only sweet revenge. Securing long-term democratic change means seeking formal alliances between different parties – each of which has a history, an identity and a track record that can add value to a common and binding pact for change.

Malta’s electoral system makes post-electoral coalitions very unlikely because small parties have very few chances of winning seats. But it does leave a window open for pre-electoral pacts, which would however require different parties contesting on one common list.

Busuttil himself and the PN may have more to gain with this latter path, than from re-proposing Muscat’s pre-2013 formula. 

First of all, in a presidential contest Muscat starts as a favourite. By proposing himself as a leader of a diverse movement, Busuttil is not changing the dynamics of the contest. In the end it will still be a choice between Busuttil and Muscat.

Secondly, it is a tried and tested formula. People know Muscat has betrayed the promise of clean and inclusive government and there is no one to hold him to account. Muscat got away with retaining Konrad Mizzi without any explosion of popular anger. The positive economic progress will secure the next electoral victory.

Third, it is difficult for voters to trust the PN, with a baggage which will not be forgotten by the next election, with governing again.

So Busuttil may have everything to gain by courting an established small party like Alternattiva Demokratika and the nascent Partit Demokratiku into a real alliance for change, which must include concrete commitments for electoral reform apart from the good governance pledge.

Just imagine giving voters the chance of voting for an alliance, with a pledge to end one-party governments. It may be extremely unlikely for someone like Salvu Mallia to win a seat, but a pre-electoral agreement between two or more parties would facilitate the entry of new voices in parliament.

Put simply, people will not be entirely convinced if a good governance pledge is made by Busuttil, but they would be more disposed to believe in it if it is endorsed by someone with the stature of Arnold Cassola, as a leader of an organised party with a 20-year history to defend.

Such a coalition would allow people to vote for an “alliance” and not for the PN, making it easier for those with little faith in the PN to still vote for a change in government. It is the only chance the PN has of being elected: convincing the electorate that it will be limiting its own power in government. A real coalition may be the best insurance policy for a sceptical electorate.

By all means the PN needs to become once again the broad church it was in the 1980s, but it needs a constructive vision for the future. For who will join the coalition? Liberals, militant Trotskyists and Mintoffian eurosceptics and conservatives? The PN must retain its centrist identity and sign up to a common platform with other parties: a vision in line with the late Guido de Marco’s own description of a ‘centrist party that looks to the left’.

Josie Muscat, a former Nationalist MP who formed a right-wing party in 2008, was present at the PN’s Independence celebrations
Josie Muscat, a former Nationalist MP who formed a right-wing party in 2008, was present at the PN’s Independence celebrations

Why a coalition is unlikely

The problem for coalition talks is that the PN finds any negotiations with a smaller party belittling, while AD itself would shun any association with the PN’s baggage fear out of fear of contamination. Third parties are always ‘safer’ retaining their purity, than take risks that would destroy them. 

Powerful and influential lobbies would also resent any talk of coalition between the PN and AD, and PN candidates would not welcome intra-coalition competition from other candidates.

And why should the PN join third parties when it can seduce individuals like Mallia, whose utility expires the moment the party is elected to power? It is exactly why a real coalition is the best insurance policy against the PN reverting to pre-2013 mode once elected in power.

Strategically, with polls showing Muscat likely to win another general election, small parties may also be wary of being seen as being part of a ‘coalition of losers’ and may prefer to emulate insurgent parties in other countries and put their hopes in a sudden change in electoral mood.

An insurgent campaign may be tempting for parties like Partit Demokratiku, led by the charismatic yet self-centred Marlene Farrugia, but success depends on sustaining a momentum in an electoral campaign where the two big parties already enjoy many advantages.

Farrugia has a practical touch (and cash) which third parties lack, and has already hinted she is open to a coalition although it is unclear whether she is pressing for any binding commitments from the PN before doing so. But would this move be her way of retaining her parliamentary seat, or would she press for fundamental reforms in Maltese democracy? A small party that has been around for a few weeks is obviously in a weaker position to strike a deal with a long-established party.  

AD may have more credibility and experience but it lacks the fire to sustain a sudden burst of activism on the eve of a general election. At best this time round third parties may end up accommodating a larger parking space for disillusioned voters. 

But here they may well face competition from the far-right, which is riding on widespread anti-establishment sentiment.

Although some will still vote for Arnold Cassola’s AD and Marlene Farrugia’s PD, many others will vote with a clothes peg on their noses, paving the way for Muscat’s ‘second republic’ and Malta’s transformation into a mini-Dubai
Although some will still vote for Arnold Cassola’s AD and Marlene Farrugia’s PD, many others will vote with a clothes peg on their noses, paving the way for Muscat’s ‘second republic’ and Malta’s transformation into a mini-Dubai

The power to elect a government

The problem for third parties is that people are unlikely to give up on the powers granted to them by the present electoral system: the first-preference vote that determines who governs the country.

Salvu Mallia’s conversion to the PN is a case in point. He would rather have the power to bring Muscat down than bet on the third-party horse. Discontent with the two-party system is growing, but has it reached the point where people no longer care about choosing the lesser evil? Mallia’s example will be used by the PN to lure voters, even third party voters, who see the need to vote for the PN after Panamagate.

Realistically small parties can only enter parliament through a pre-electoral pact and on a common list with either Labour or the PN. With Labour drifting to the right of the Nationalist Party on most issues except civil liberties, and with Muscat having no interest in sharing power with others, an alliance with the greens is out of the question.

And judging by Busuttil’s recent declarations (and past declarations by AD exponents) so is any coalition with the PN.

The likely outcome of Busuttil’s own insurgent strategy – which sees him trying to lure anyone opposed to Labour – will be a more polarised election which may well see Muscat returned to power, probably with a slimmer majority. Although some will still vote for AD and the PD, many others will vote with a clothes peg on their noses, paving the way for Muscat’s ‘second republic’ and Malta’s transformation into a mini-Dubai. These are indeed high stakes, but the alternative presented by Busuttil remains unconvincing.

Thinking outside the box, Busuttil would give the PN a chance to return to power by convincing the electorate that it will be limiting its own power when in government. But it is a real coalition with other parties – and not a motley crew of individuals cheering Busuttil – which will be the best insurance policy for a sceptical electorate in voting for change. 

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