[ANALYSIS] After Cassola’s hara-kiri, eight ways to re-invent a moribund party

Beyond the abortion row, Cassola’s resignation from AD marks the end of an epoch for the small, progressive and persistent party which was, however, drifting into irrelevance, and failing to attract a new generation of radical activists to take the place of party stalwarts. MaltaToday asks: How can the Greens re-invent themselves?

1. Embrace the change: Maltese society has changed considerably since 1989 when AD was founded

The majority remains firmly against abortion but the debate is more nuanced. It was inevitable that at this juncture a minority in the most historically liberal Maltese political party would raise this issue at least in solidarity with feminists vilified by aggressive pro-life lobbies.

Historically the abortion issue highlighted the dissonance between AD’s attempt to appeal to local mainstream voters and the party’s international affiliation with the more radical European greens. The manifesto of the European Greens for 2019 clearly states that “the right to abortion” should “be included in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights” and the Greens want to “guarantee free and accessible, good-quality and safe sexual and reproductive healthcare and services for all, including abortion”.

On its part on every occasion AD has consistently voted against the inclusion of reproductive rights in the European Green’s manifesto and most of its founders genuinely opposed the legalisation of abortion. Yet through its history the party also included in its ranks activists with pro-choice views in the safe comfort that internal debate on this issue was stalled simply because nobody of stature was raising this issue locally.

The understanding was that this was a ‘no-go issue’ in a country faced with more pressing issues like corruption, the environment, divorce and more recently, gay rights. Cassola’s own quasi-successful bid for MEP in 2004 was triggered by his strong rebuttal of the PN’s claim that AD was a pro-choice party. That was also the last occasion where AD served as a substantial parking space for disgruntled and pale blue PN voters. But the liberalisation of social mores over the past decade and the emergence of a respectable feminist organisation finally taking a pro-choice stance, meant that the elephant in AD’s room had grown in size. It was inevitable that the issue would resurface in a new political context where pro-choice views gained new legitimacy.

This happened through a very mild call for ‘respectful discussion’ by MEP candidate Mina Tolu which was met by Cassola’s ultimatum on the party to disassociate itself from the views of the young candidate, the refusal of which led to the Green stalwart’s resignation.

2. Act less like a party and more as a movement

Cassola’s reaction to Tolu’s call for debate on abortion contrasts with the growing trend which sees political parties transforming themselves into movements which can contain different nuances on some issues while agreeing on others.

That a Green party fields a candidate who wants a debate on abortion should not come as a surprise for anyone, least of all Cassola who has worked along pro-choice politicians at a European level. Despite being against the legalisation of abortion in Malta and making it clear that he would never speak on behalf of the Greens on this issue, Cassola was still elected general secretary of a political family.

In this sense the Greens, whose platform was and still is clearly pro-choice, still accepted Cassola in their ranks. Ironically Cassola is not willing to share the same platform with a candidate who is simply calling for a “respectful debate” on this issue. Big successful parties like Labour in Malta are jettisoning the straight jacket of party structures in favour of more open big tent politics.

Even the PN had harboured Salvu Mallia, who declared his pro-choice views before the 2017 election. And although there is no official debate on abortion in Labour it is an open secret that many young party activists have nuanced views on this topic. The idea of the party as an ideological closed shop is on the way out.

While small parties can afford to present themselves as more principled than big parties, they cannot afford to present themselves as inward looking, tribal and stuffy. In this case Mina Tolu’s call for a respectful debate on abortion could well have been a mark of distinction from the other parties who shy away from open debate on this issue. It also helps distinguish the Greens from the PD whose founders were even opposed to the introduction of emergency contraception.

3. The party’s brand is well past its expiry date. It’s time for a complete new branding

AD is no longer the new kid on the block. For anyone born after 1974, AD has been a fixture on the ballot sheet in every general election. Moreover, with a few exceptions the brand is more associated with failures than success. It fails to fire the imagination of younger people. In a more socially liberal country facing a building frenzy and increased social inequalities, one would expect the greens to be making some inroads. But this is not happening partly because AD is seen as a relic of a past age.

AD has a legacy it can be proud of, having been the first party to put the environment on the political agenda and the first to propose legislation on divorce, gay marriages and party financing among many other themes. Yet by persisting on its tried and tested approach and re-proposing the same old faces, it may well have become a liability for the emergence of a new wave of progressive third party politics.

4. Time to reach out

The party did not have the generational renewal it needed especially after Briguglio’s abrupt departure following its best general election result in 2013.

The writing has been on the wall for some years. In the absence of generational renewal the party is bound to die a long slow death. AD leader Carmel Cacopardo has recognised this problem and has declared that his aim is to promote a new generation of activists. In fact, the party is fielding relatively new candidates in local elections in Mellieha and Marsaskala as well as in MEP elections by presenting the candidature of Mina Tolu, an LGBTIQ and anti-hunting activist, as a candidate for MEP elections.

Yet the decision to field veterans Cassola and Cacopardo together on one ticket perpetuated the impression that the party was dominated by a generation which refuses to let go. This raises the question; from where can AD get its new recruits? For a principled progressive party offering little prospect of career advancement in the shape of political appointments, the pool of potential recruits is limited to activists who see politics as a way to bring about change.

These include militants in radical organisations like Graffitti and like-minded progressive NGOs. In fact, most of the party’s new recruits after 2000 hailed from Graffitti. One major dilemma for the present-day crop of activists in groups like Graffitti and Kamp Emergenza Ambjent is that as much as they would like to see an electoral alternative to the two major parties, they also realise that they may have more influence in their role as coalition builders bringing together Labour and Nationalist councillors against mega projects than as candidates with very little chance of electoral success. Yet some may always be tempted with a direct intervention in politics, especially if this is done through new forms of political engagement.

5. The electoral system is what it is. The Greens have to learn working within it

With little chances of the two big parties changing the electoral system, which is skewed against third parties, the Greens’ only relevance in a general election is that of acting as standard-bearer of certain ideas and values. In fact, AD achieved its best results in the general election when it was ideologically coherent and radical as was the case in 2013.

This is because its catchment pool in these elections is restricted to voters who do not care which of the two main parties is elected to power. Moreover, even among this category AD faces competition in an increasingly crowded field which includes the centrist PD and the far right. The PD did manage to elect candidates on the PN ticket but the aftermath of the last general election makes it extremely unlikely that this experience is repeated in the future.

One possible alternative is investing all resources in an attempt to get elected from one district. But that depends on the kind of mobilisation which requires the support of social movements and activists from outside AD’s restricted cadre of activists. Small parties should have a stronger chance of getting elected at local level and at European level where the government of the country is not at stake. But with the exception of Cassola’s near miss in 2004 voters have been reluctant to vote for third parties in MEP elections.

AD has been more successful in electing candidates at local level and these have generally left a positive impact. But instead of building on these success stories AD has always prioritised national elections.

6. Change the rules of political engagement

The rules of political engagement are changing on a global level. A progressive outfit can explore different avenues apart from direct participation in elections, including supporting progressive candidates across the board.

The advent of activist groups like Momentum in the UK and the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US have showed that grass root activism can tilt the balance in deeply bipartisan systems in favour of more progressive candidates. The election of Alexandria Ocacio Cortez, a self-declared democratic socialist elected within the Democratic Party is part of this new wave of politics.

Supporting progressive and pro-environment candidates fielded by other parties, could be an option worth exploring, especially in local elections where the greens are absent from the ballot list. This may also be a more attractive option for activist groups seeking tangible changes than supporting a third party with very little chance of making it into parliament.

8. Pale blue conservative voters have other options. Time to consider Labour voters

The Democratic Party has emerged as an option for disgruntled Nationalists, especially those who shun Adrian Delia. It remains to be seen whether it will be successful in this bid. For most of its existence AD which was also born as a reaction to old Labour had focused its attention on pale blue voters. But in reality, with the exception of the 2004 MEP elections, disgruntled Nationalists found it easier to cross to Labour directly instead of parking themselves in AD.

Yet with Labour becoming in its own right a big tent party holding a diversity of views, some of which in complete dissonance with socialist values, a new party on the left may become an attractive prospect for some Labour voters. This may be even more the case in MEP and local elections where the government of the country is not at stake. But to get there such a party needs a more Labour-friendly brand.

7. Give politics a dose of progressive populism

The environment and anti-corruption – the two issues which AD championed since 1989, remain important. But the added value of having a Green Party is that it can propose alternatives.

Surveys show that concern over the environment and land use issues is growing. But people have other avenues to express their dissent on these issues. The corruption issue has taken new relevance following panamagate, but has been largely taken up by the plethora of activist groups which came in to existence after Caruana Galizia’s murder that mainly focus on Labour’s corruption.

Yet there is plenty of space for those who consider corruption as a symptom of an economic model dominated by big business interests rather than simply a symptom of Labour’s moral decadence.

A Green Party can offer something different in the shape of critique of the economic model and an alternative blue print for a post growth society. But this risks being seen as an academic exercise. This can only be avoided through a progressive populism which challenges the economic status quo with innovative and radical ideas on themes like the living wage, property taxes and a new green deal, which also makes a difference on bread and butter issues.

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