[ANALYSIS] From ‘Vaffa’ to victory: Could it happen in Malta?

Long read • 2,069 words | In less than a decade, the Italian 5-Star Movement grew from a quirky protest movement led by angry comedian Beppe Grillo to become Italy’s largest political party and the dominant force in the south. Can this ever happen in Malta?

Beppe Grillo and Luigi di Maio: Italian elections last week catapulted the 5- Star Movement (M5S) to become the country’s largest party after less than a decade in existence after garnering the support of a third of voters. Why does this not happen in Malta?
Beppe Grillo and Luigi di Maio: Italian elections last week catapulted the 5- Star Movement (M5S) to become the country’s largest party after less than a decade in existence after garnering the support of a third of voters. Why does this not happen in Malta?

A recent Eurobarometer survey showed a general mistrust in political parties among the Maltese population. The latest survey showed 21% saying they tend to trust parties, still higher than the EU average of 18%, but far lower than the 30% trust level registered in May 2017.

Judging by the social media outrage at the decision of MPs to award themselves a pension after only serving five years, anger at what the Italians call the “political caste” is growing. Yet despite this general mistrust in Maltese political parties, third parties still fare badly in all opinion polls which show AD and PD garnering a combined support of between 1% and 3%.

Next year’s European elections represent a major test for Maltese third party politics

A similar distrust in the political system resulted in the rise of new parties in Spain where the liberal Citizens Party is now leading the polls following the earlier rise of Podemos on the left. Italian elections last week catapulted the 5- Star Movement (M5S) to become the country’s largest party after less than a decade in existence after garnering the support of a third of voters. Why does this not happen in Malta?

A question of tradition

Sure enough Malta lacks a pluralistic political tradition as Italy and Spain have had for decades. Malta has not elected a third party contesting on its own steam to parliament since 1962. Political loyalties in Malta run deeper than in Italy even if the results of the past two elections suggested considerable shifts from the Nationalist Party to the Labour Party.

In contrast Italy has a long tradition of new political parties being formed as others disappear. Some, like Forza Italia, even managed to win power in the past, by filling the gap left by traditional parties swamped by the tangentopoli scandal.

Italy has a pluralistic political tradition
Italy has a pluralistic political tradition

Other smaller parties – like many born out of the Christian Democratic diaspora – take a free ride on larger parties by becoming their satellites. Others owe their existence to fusions from splits from other parties.

For example, the left-wing Liberi e Uguali that barely scraped through the 3% threshold is in itself the result of the fusion of at least three movements splitting from the PD and two other movements outside the PD.

This was not the case with the winners of last week’s election, the Lega and the M5S, both of which have grown organically from insignificance to become Italy’s two largest parties.

The Lega was born from the ashes of the first republic in the tumultuous tangentopoli days as a separatist movement.

Lega's Matteo Salvini
Lega's Matteo Salvini

The M5S was unleashed by the Vaffanculo Day (Fuck-off Day), a day of public mobilisation aimed at preventing the nomination of Parliamentary candidates with a criminal conviction.

Unlike the Lega, M5S has so far refused alliances with other forces. While the Lega has grown in the shadows of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia only to gradually outgrow him, M5S has thrived on post-ideological ambiguity. In this way it can take votes from both left and right by sending mixed issues on migration and civil liberties issues while appealing to left-wing voters through an environmentalist and anti- corruption stance at local level. Underlying this ambiguity were the movement’s decision to abstain on civil unions and to oppose a proposed law to grant citizenship to migrants born in Italy.

Don’t blame the electoral system

Another reason why Malta is different from Italy is its electoral system. Basically the only chance third parties have to elect an MP on their own steam is by winning approximately 16% in one district. This would require an epochal change of heart in the electorate.

To elect an MP on its own steam a third political party has to obtain 16% of the vote on one district
To elect an MP on its own steam a third political party has to obtain 16% of the vote on one district

The only alternative is to take a free ride on the list of a major party as the PD did successfully in the last general election but at the cost of alienating the host party.

Yet in Italy the M5S has not just won seats through seats allocated through proportional representation but has also made a clean sweep of seats in all Italy south of Lazio, winning all the first past the post seats in Sicily and Sardinia. Moreover, the latest electoral law – through which a third of seats are allocated to candidates elected through the first past the post system – was meant to penalise M5S and favour the two rival coalitions. Rather than simply grumbling against the electoral system, M5S adapted itself to this new reality.

Capturing the national mood

M5S twice managed to capture the national mood, first by capitalising on popular anger at corruption in the final days of the third Berlusconi government – eclipsing the left in the process – and then by re-inventing itself as a catch-all party in its opposition to centre-left governments. By remaining ambiguous on thorny issues, M5S could attract voters from both sides. While the scruffy Beppe Grillo represented the first rebellious phase, the poster boy Luigi Di Maio represents the second phase which sees the party gaining institutional respectability.

MS5 founder Beppe Grillo (left) with his party’s candidate for prime minister, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio
MS5 founder Beppe Grillo (left) with his party’s candidate for prime minister, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio

Sure enough the chickens are bound to come home to roost. Italians already had a taste of the movement’s pitfalls whenever its exponents were elected to local office as happened in Rome, where corruption and bad governance remained endemic. But this was not enough to kill the appetite for change, and losses in the north and central Italy, particularly in cities like Rome, were more than compensated by a clean sweep of votes in the south of Italy. The Lega’s Matteo Salvini has shown a similar ability to capture the national mood by ditching Umberto Bossi’s separatism and reinventing the League as an anti-immigrant and eurosceptic party modelled on the National Front.

Our own dose of Grillo

One may find a few similarities between the antics of Grillo’s movement and those of PD MP Marlene Farrugia.

 One may find a few similarities between the antics of Grillo’s movement and those of PD MP Marlene Farrugia
One may find a few similarities between the antics of Grillo’s movement and those of PD MP Marlene Farrugia

Like Beppe Grillo, Farrugia also has a tendency of making a spectacle through the use of colourful language. A case in point was the over-reaction she provoked from Clint Camilleri after she called him a gbejna (cheeselet). Farrugia also shows an affinity with local rural traditions in a similar way that the M5S has thrived in a celebration of southern identity. But unlike the M5S, the PD has aligned itself with the European Liberals and presents itself as a mainstream centrist party.

It is the economy (and Muscat) stupid

But ultimately there is one fundamental difference between Malta and the rest of Southern Europe, which explains why we had no local version of the insurrection against established parties. While new anti-corruption political movements in Spain and Italy have thrived on anger created by economic stagnation and the lack of job prospects, in Malta the economy is booming, to the extent that our labour market is attracting thousands of workers from Sicily.

In fact M5S was also focused on bread and butter issues: offering the unemployed masses in the south the promise of a national basic income.

 Joseph Muscat has so far managed to make the average working-class voter richer and happier
Joseph Muscat has so far managed to make the average working-class voter richer and happier

Joseph Muscat’s movement is also characterised by a peculiar brand of populism which revolves on his ability to square the circle by extending welfare and public expenditure while still decreasing taxation. This was partly achieved by exploiting Malta’s small island reality as a low tax base and point of entry for the global rich in to the European union.

New anti-corruption political movements in Spain and Italy thrived on anger created by economic stagnation, But in Malta the economy is booming, attracting thousands of workers from Sicily

In many ways despite warming up to big business as Matteo Renzi did in Italy, Muscat has so far managed to make the average working-class voter richer and happier. The mixture of business-friendly policies characterised by a ‘can do’ approach to policy-making, a dose of social liberalism and his strongman posture turn Muscat in to the great exception of European politics. While keeping the barbarians far away from Malta’s gates, Muscat has also taken upon himself some of their attributes, appropriating the spirit of the populist insurgency while still ensuring a high score in Malta’s credit rating.

This is why Muscat periodically lashes against the establishment and local traditional elites while projecting his party as a movement in which he assumes the central role of a presidential leader. Doubts on the sustainability of the Muscat model are simply not enough to propel an insurrection.

Muscat has projected the Labour Party as a movement
Muscat has projected the Labour Party as a movement

While scandals – like Panamagate, and the many skeletons left in the closet by past PN governments which periodically return to haunt the Opposition – have taken their toll on the trust enjoyed by the two main political parties, trust in Muscat keeps growing.

Meanwhile, third parties have not capitalised on the momentum of civil society activism unleashed by the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the distrust among a category of PN voters in new opposition leader Adrian Delia.

So far polls indicate that these voters are either undecided or bent on not voting, an indication that, faced by the prospect of an even stronger Labour party, forecasts a strong possibility that they may close ranks again.

Do or die for third parties?

Next year’s European elections represent a major test for Maltese third party politics. With the Opposition in tatters and with voters not being expected to choose who will govern the country, circumstances should be favourable for third parties. It was back in the first MEP elections 2004 that Arnold Cassola came closest in undermining the two-party hegemony by coming close to winning a seat in the European Parliament.

In 2004 Arnold Cassola came close to undermining the two-party hegemony in the EP election
In 2004 Arnold Cassola came close to undermining the two-party hegemony in the EP election

Still one major factor in this election may well be migration. Any decision by a future Italian government not to renew the unwritten agreement to take all migrants rescued in Malta’s search and rescue zone, may boost the Maltese far right.

Back in 2014 – 6,761 voters had opted for Norman Lowell who is far more extreme than the Italian Lega. Yet the Maltese far right still lacks a charismatic leader like Matteo Salvini.

We are closer to Macron than to Di Maio” –  PD leader Anthony Buttigieg

PD leader Anthony Buttigieg
PD leader Anthony Buttigieg

“In Malta, support for new parties is only now beginning to happen as we were spared the worst of the financial crash and austerity. Discontent is growing with the perception that both main parties now work for their business sponsors rather than the general public, with both the middle and working classes beginning to struggle.

In Europe discontent directed at the old political order was harnessed, either by populist parties and politicians such as M5S – who galvanised the electorate with sound-bites rather than policies – or new centrist movements offering a more citizen centric government like Macron’s En Marche party and Ciudadanos in Spain. Partit Demokratiku is more like the latter than former.”

“Malta is going to the dogs” - former AD chairprerson Arnold Cassola

“To be honest, I do not see this happening in Malta soon. Muscat has created a ruling yuppie governing class whose only concern is adulation and bootlicking of their political master, living the good life and making a quick buck for themselves, including fast pensions. Very sly gbejniet, indeed! When you have the political parties competing between themselves to serve the needs of business people of the ilk of Sandro Chetcuti and company, then you realise that this country has lost its basic moral fiber, without which no moral regeneration can take place. With Delia trying to be a cheap copy of Muscat, I can only see the country’s ethics and basic values going further to the dogs.”

Economic collapse could open floodgates for populists – Ingram Bondin, environmentalist and anti-censorship campaigner

Ingram Bondin
Ingram Bondin

“In my opinion the rise of a force similar to M5S in Malta is not to be excluded. Growing discontent with brazen corruption, clientelism and the control of politics by self-interest lobbies is already present. The political system is also not as stable as it once was. One can see this in how the PN is struggling to rehabilitate itself after its long years in office. On the other hand the centre-left no longer exists in Malta because the Labour Party has no social conscience. Problems such as the housing crisis are not being tackled seriously and are going to grow and affect greater segments of society.

“The fact that this problem is being exacerbated by the sudden increase of foreigners working in Malta could also create problems with immigration and lead to greater euro-scepticism. The missing ingredient so far seems to be an economic crisis which creates problems of mass unemployment. One could, however, argue that the country is over exposed to certain sectors whose permanence cannot be guaranteed and whose winding down risks creating grave problems for public finances and for other sectors of the economy now reliant on them.

“Such a time of distress could allow populist parties to sweep the country”.

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