Why the Maltese still reject the far-right

The far-right and anti-immigrant parties so far have registered no support in polls, while past MEP elections never saw these parties surpass the 3-point mark. MaltaToday asks why Malta remains immune to the trend of the populist right becoming a mainstream force

Malta appears to be immune to the European rise of far-right populist parties
Malta appears to be immune to the European rise of far-right populist parties

Historically the best result for a far-right party in a Maltese election was the 6,761 votes gained by Norman Lowell’s Imperium Europa in the 2014 MEP election.

Yet even in the favourable conditions of the European elections, where voters can vote for any candidate without any fear of repercussion on who gets elected to  government as happens in general elections, voters have largely shunned the far-right. Even less extreme anti-immigrant and conservative groupings have fared even worse than the self-avowed racists and apologists for Nazism like Lowell, as he so eloquently explained earlier in the week on F-Living free-for-all. Why is this so?

The lack of a charismatic leader

In these elections the Maltese right-wing vote will be fragmented with the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin (MPM), a bunch of Islamophobes and cultural conservatives competing with the more extreme Norman Lowell, who is a self-avowed admirer of the genocidal Adolf Hitler. Also standing as an independent is Stephen Florian, a former exponent of the MPM, who had been forced to resign from a university lecturing post after indulging in a gratuitous attack on a transgender activist. And then appealing to the conservative Christian vote is Ivan Grech Mintoff’s Alleanza Bidla.

Maltese far-right exponents tend to be either too extreme and brutal, as remains the case with Lowell, or too crass to be taken seriously as has been the case with the MPM, whose banner includes a bus with the Maltese flag emblazoned on its side carrying Indian workers clambering on the vehicle from all sides.

So far, the Maltese right-wing lacks a charismatic leader like Matteo Salvini who manages to appeal to both conservative traditional voters and to more angry anti-establishment voters.

But surely the problem runs deeper than that, for in 2009 Azzjoni Nazzjonali still flopped despite being led by former PN firebrand Josie Muscat and property magnate Angelo Xuereb. This suggests that the target vote of the Maltese far-right still finds itself at home in the big traditional parties.

Henry Battistino is the leader of the anti-immigrant Moviment Patrijotti Maltin
Henry Battistino is the leader of the anti-immigrant Moviment Patrijotti Maltin

Too conservative to experiment with third parties

The fact that someone as extreme as Norman Lowell has outperformed conservatives with less extreme views may be symptomatic of a political system where mainstream voters tend to shun third parties and only people with more radical views tend to defy the duopoly.
One reason for this is that apart from fiery rhetoric, far-right parties have nothing to offer in terms of patronage – no goodies to give out.

Moreover, the segment of the population disposed to vote for third parties is very limited, even in MEP elections where less than 6% have voted for third parties in the last decade.

Norman Lowell has managed to capitalise on the ambiguity created by his eccentricity, attracting the vote of those who would not swear allegiance to his movement but are disposed to blow a raspberry on what they perceive as the establishment. Lowell is that raspberry.

Xenophobes still find a home in the PN and PL

Both major parties manage to project themselves as big tent parties, harbouring within them attitudes which right-wing voters find attractive.

Even under Simon Busuttil, the PN had welcomed Josie Muscat amongst its 2017 candidates. Labour compensates for its liberalism on social liberties by resorting to a fiery patriotism when it comes to defending the country from “traitors” which tarnish the country’s name, and lambast scritical MEPs as “envious” of Malta’s success.

On immigration, Labour manages to perform a balancing act: between an open labour market policy coupled with some significant steps for the integration of migrant communities, and a firm stance against NGOs engaged in the rescue of immigrants in the Mediterranean. It also manages to use a discourse of economic nationalism to defend Malta’s piratic tax regime so criticised by other European countries.

Under Adrian Delia the PN has been more inclined towards social conservatism, turning its anti-abortion stance into a mark of identity. It has also managed to tread between some legitimate concerns on cheap labour and pressures on infrastructure posed by the influx of foreign workers, and irrational fears of cultural influence and change. For example, the way the PN media exploited a circular to nurses ordering them not to exhibit personal devotional items at work, attributing it to pressure of foreigners “of a different religion” put on Castille, smacked of the discourse used by conservative right-wing parties.

While one may argue that the two major parties are in a way contributing to arresting the growth of the far-right, their discourse often ends up legitimising far-right discourse and making the implementation of integration polices more difficult.

No austerity, no anger

It was years of austerity that eroded community bonds across Europe, which largely contributed to the growth of right-wing populism. This economic degradation coupled with the decline of centre-left mass parties, contributed to a climate in which the far-right could exploit tensions in left behind communities.

Although Malta is facing growing social inequalities and problems like housing affordability, its welfare system remains intact as its economy keeps growing at a high rate, also thanks to the contribution of thousands of foreigners. This may explain why concern on immigration in Malta is offset by awareness that the influx is beneficial to the people’s financial well-being.

In fact, foreign workers are often depicted in official propaganda as accessories to economic growth rather than full members of the Maltese community, which makes them a sort of necessary evil for the Maltese xenophobe. In this sense Muscat’s model of accelerated economic growth may have contributed to arresting the growth of the far-right. The risk is that a future economic downturn may well open the floodgates for the far-right.

Azzjoni Nazzjonali contested the 2008 general election before meeting its demise in the 2009 MEP elections
Azzjoni Nazzjonali contested the 2008 general election before meeting its demise in the 2009 MEP elections

The many incarnations of the Maltese far-right

The Maltese far-right has undergone various incarnations, often modelled after chief instigators who freely spout anti-immigration rhetoric.
At 73, the ultranationalist Norman Lowell has long lost his provocateur’s sheen, and his latest TV appearances and small indoor rallies reveal a tired cache of racist jibes and racial fantasies. Despite being a reference point for those who in the early 2000s demanded the repatriation of African migrants rescued at sea, less extreme forces attempted to make their own political mark.

The organisation Alleanza Nazzjonali Repubblikana brought out the man in suits, people like Martin Degiorgio, a historical re-enactment fanatic who headed the Mondial travel agency, and right-wing academic Philip Beattie, today a proponent of the Catholic conservative Malta Pro Christiana.

The ANR led a first demonstration “against illegal immigration”, and seemingly evolved into Azzjoni Nazzjonali, a right-wing party headed by former Nationalist MP Josie Muscat and the businessman Anglu Xuereb, which met its demise in the 2009 European elections.

In the third wave of anti-immigration parties, the latest incarnation is that of the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin. Unlike the first waves of far-rightists reacting to the scenes of Maltese armed forces rescuing boat migrants, the ‘patriots’ wage a campaign against what they claim is “forced integration” and other progressive reforms in civil liberties enacted since 2013.

With European strongmen like Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, and Marie Le Pen as their reference points, they use Islamophobia and Euroscepticism as ideological signposts. But with a campaign focused on more materialist concerns, you will hear the patriots complaining about high property prices, crime, and Maltese jobs displaced by both African migrants and skilled Europeans.

More in National