[ANALYSIS] United against the establishment

In the wake of the US election, both Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and opposition leader Simon Busuttil jumped on Donald Trump’s 'anti establishment' bandwagon. Are they taking voters for a ride? James Debono asks

Mirror Mirror on the wall… who is the most anti establishment of us two?
Mirror Mirror on the wall… who is the most anti establishment of us two?

Muscat’s game: I am the people’s voice, you are the elite

In his first reaction to Trump’s victory Muscat declared that it strengthens his “resolve never to become part of the establishment, but rather work to change it from within…”

This begs the question: how can one change the establishment from within without being a part of it?

Perhaps, Muscat was simply being honest by acknowledging that as Prime Minister he is part of the establishment running the country and to his credit by not rocking the boat Muscat has given the country the political stability required for economic growth. So why is Muscat using Trump’s victory to lash out against this abstract entity?

Muscat’s readiness to jump on Trump’s bandwagon betrays his awareness of a creeping perception that his government’s pro-business policies, especially in land use (the Paceville masterplan and the approval of high-rises in Sliema and Mriehel are cases in point) are self-serving policies benefitting a number of construction groups, some of which, like the Gasan and Tumas groups, also have a direct interest in the government’s energy policies. Moreover Muscat himself holds the global elite, many of them purveyors of citizenship schemes and exploiters of fiscal loopholes in other countries, in very high regard.

To counter this perception Muscat presents himself as a strongman who is in synch with popular aspirations. He may get his hands dirty in his role as Malta’s salesperson but in the prevailing narrative he only does so to make life better for everyone else. 

Moreover Muscat portrays himself as the sole intermediary between government and  “families and business (who) want decision-makers to hear their real, unfiltered concerns”. This weakens the role of party, the bureaucracy and parliament in holding his power in check. In his budget speech Muscat compared the slow modus operandi of past Nationalist governments with his “turbo” way of doing things.  

For Muscat another lesson from Trump’s victory is that “priorities are decided in homes and workplaces, not in palaces or newsrooms”. His reference to palaces and media in the same breath betrays increased nervousness towards media scrutiny – ironically as opposition leader Muscat had actively courted the media but as prime minister he is keen on linking it to the establishment. This fits in well with his unease about a “campaigning” media.  

Less nasty than Trump

After having briefly flirted with anti immigrant rhetoric before and immediately after the 2013 election, when he toyed with a push back of immigrants, Muscat has championed civil liberties, gay rights and integration. Cushioned by the Italian acceptance of boat people, Muscat has acknowledged push backs as a mistake.

One reason for his turnaround may well be that his economic model hinges on foreign labour and rich foreigners buying property, but as suggested by recent events, which have seen irregular migrants rounded up for eventual deportation, Muscat still tends to distinguish between rich and poor migrants. In this sense while he cannot be in any way compared to Trump, who distinguished himself in the use of hate speech directed against minorities, Muscat may still play the migration card if cornered.

Moreover Muscat’s strongman approach to decision-making, coupled with his subservience to certain business lobbies –¬ in his bid to accelerate economic growth – betrays an inclination towards the kind of populism advocated by Trump. So is his devotion to the global elite reflected in his boldness in changing Malta’s landscapes and social fabric to accommodate them.

This may explain why, despite his conversion to Europeanist positions, immediately after Brexit Muscat was quick to lash out against disconnected “political elites”, with his party machine constantly referring to opposition leader Simon Busuttil as a representative of these political elites. In so doing Labour has identified Busuttil’s main weakness, as the leader of a party which was entrenched in power for 25 years during which Busuttil himself was projected as a rising star.  

For while the two leaders share a similar social class background, Busuttil’s ascent coincided with his party’s long spell in government. Curiously both leaders were born in self employed families (Muscat’s father being a fireworks importer and Busuttil’s an owner of an iron shop) and have attended the same school (St Aloysius college). And despite taking different career paths – with Busuttil being closer to the traditional lawyer class, while Muscat followed Alfred Sant’s footsteps as an economist – they followed the same political path first by having a role in their party’s media and then as MEPs.

Busuttil’s game: I am the insurgency, you are the establishment

Busuttil’s first dignified reaction to Trump’s victory was a  sober tweet expressing concern on the global uncertainty created by Trump’s ascent to power.

But speaking on Radio 101 on Sunday, just an hour after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat refuted claims that his government was part of the establishment, the PN leader insisted that the prime minister was, together with Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, part of a “corrupt establishment” leading Malta. 

“The establishment in Malta is the prime minister and the two people around him who were found to have set up secret companies in Panama,” Busuttil said in a dig at former energy minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri. 

In this sense Busuttil’s response to Muscat’s anti establishment claim was justified in the face of the Prime Minister’s attempt to portray himself as the anti establishment leader. Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri are certainly not part of some old school or traditional ruling class; but their actions, make no mistake, are part of an aspiration to be part of that kind of global elite that makes full use of tax havens like the British Virgin Islands and Panama.

In reality the Busuttil political persona is more akin to that of a sober but imperfect Hillary Clinton than to a strongman like Donald Trump
In reality the Busuttil political persona is more akin to that of a sober but imperfect Hillary Clinton than to a strongman like Donald Trump

But this also begs questions on whether the participation of Nationalist exponents in the financial services sector, as intermediaries or as IIP agents, also makes them a part of the despised establishment. Still, nothing can beat the establishment credentials of a minister and a chief of staff who own companies in Panama and the BVI.

Where Busuttil was completely off the mark was in portraying his challenge to Muscat as an anti establishment crusade similar to Trump’s.  For Busuttil’s assessment of the US election as “a vote against the establishment and the concentrated powers that favour the few,” is a wrong one. Busuttil invites the Maltese to take “lessons from the US election and vote to remove the establishment”. But the kind of establishment which US voters have voted against is more akin to the PN’s 25 year balancing act between cronyism and institutional progress than to Muscat’s system of power in which he is increasingly behaving like a Nationalist on steroids.

In reality the Busuttil political persona is more akin to that of a sober but imperfect Hillary Clinton than to a strongman like Donald Trump. Busuttil may be right in exposing the hypocrisy of Muscat’s anti establishment rhetoric but he can’t escape the fate of leading a centrist party whose best claim to winning back power is to promise a better job in governing the country and not ride high on a populist insurgency.

By projecting himself as an insurgent candidate Busuttil is wearing a shoe which does not fit him, putting his authenticity in question. At best Busuttil can reach out to credible ‘insurgents’ like the Greens and civil society movements rather than taking a role which does not fit him.

Busuttil is what he is, a  promoter of EU membership, a former MEP and a former deputy leader of a centrist party, which was firmly entrenched in power networks for 25 years. Where Busuttil can make a difference is by presenting himself as the proponent of checks and balances, which would ensure that a future Nationalist government would not be able to ride roughshod on meritocracy and good governance. For good governance, if entrenched by laws and regulations, is the greatest insurance against oligarchy. Busuttil’s best shot to power is a promise to limit his own power if elected.

What is the establishment?

While both political leaders are partly right in depicting their adversary as being close to certain vested interests, “the establishment” is a very flexible term which can be comfortably used by anyone who feels excluded, irrespective of other more real distinctions like wealth, power and status. Moreover, determining who is part of the establishment is tricky, depending on who is writing the narrative.

While a conservative is likely to see the liberal media, environmentalists, the civil rights lobby and the bureaucracy as pillars of the establishment, left wingers are more likely to refer to the power of big business. In a country like Malta, where ideological lines are blurred, both parties are likely to pick and choose, putting their adversaries in the establishment camp and their allies in the pro-change camp.  Perversely, for a diehard Labourite, the Archbishop, in ranting against high-rise towers as a symbol of a new capitalist religion, represents the “establishment”, while for a diehard traditionalist Nationalist the gay lobby is now part and parcel of the establishment. 

In reality both Busuttil as an opposition leader and aspirant prime minister and Muscat as prime minister are part of a political establishment, which owes its legitimacy to liberal democratic norms. And this is not a bad thing. In fact Malta is so far lucky not to have been rocked by the politics of hatred, which mark the insurgency of far right candidates and parties in the rest of Europe and the USA.

At the same time both Busuttil and Muscat are prone to be subjected to the pressures of lobby groups ranging from gun toting hunters to powerful financial groups who seek to influence policy-making to further their interests. Rather than asking which of the two leaders is most pro-establishment, it may be more worthwhile to ask another question: whose policies are least susceptible to pressure from these lobbies and whose policies are more likely to create a firewall between public policy and the self-serving interests of the rich and the powerful?  

Surely judging by the outcome of the US election, an anti establishment insurgency is not the answer. For Donald Trump, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy before him, is simply blurring further the lines between private interests and governance. In fact even in Malta, it is the conflict of interest between private business interests and policy making which is eroding democratic decision making.  

Thankfully the US has a long tradition of checks and balances to restrain Trump now that he is President. On the other hand this is exactly what Malta lacks. It is the absence of institutional checks and balances which leaves Malta unprepared for a real populist challenge – represented by the far right – which may rock the entire political establishment when the economy hits a snag. 

What constitutes an elite?

Elites are those who have vastly disproportionate access to or control over resources. Access or control in one arena of social life can result in advantages in others. 

US sociologist C. Wright Mills published his book The Power Elite in 1956, identifying a triumvirate of power groups – political, economic and military – which form a distinguishable, although not unified, power-wielding body in the United States.  

German liberal sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf was critical of Mills’s view that ruling elites act like a cabal. Instead, Dahrendorf argued that there is no single “elite class” which shares a common interest. Instead, they are a diverse group who, because of their social power, share a degree of autonomy that allows them to influence state policy more than other less organised groups. 

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