A matter of politics and community: fighting the far-right in Malta

The way we speak, the way the economy hits the weakest among us... explaining the seduction of the far-right in the 2019 European elections is no mean feat

The Nationalist Party MP Claudio Grech has said both major parties must come up with an adequate response to the toxic agenda that fuelled the far-right’s showing in the 2019 European elections.

Grech, whose constituency includes Hamrun, one of the few localities contested unsuccessful by the nativist Patriots, appeared to break ranks with his own party’s discourse during the 2019 European elections on foreign workers.

“The problem is two-fold: the ‘spectre of populism’ is contributing to far-right sentiments… on the one hand, you find many who complain about the presence of foreigners but then, the same people would be exploiting them for business interests, manifestly reflecting the erosion of what social justice means in a modern economy.”

Nazi apologist and Imperium Europe leader Norman Lowell
Nazi apologist and Imperium Europe leader Norman Lowell

Malta emerged from a European election in which Nazi apologist Norman Lowell triumphed in the third party battle with over 8,200 first-count votes, and which fielded one of the greatest ever number of candidates, party and independents, with far-right sentiments.

Lowell easily seduced the far-right vote away from the ultra-nationalist Patriots party, who floundered miserably. But his first count proportion of 3.2% of the national vote, tied with the Patriots’ 0.3% and the ultra-conservative Alleanza Bidla, easily gives the radical right-wing just over 50% of the third party vote, a fact that should shock parties that promote values of decency and liberalism.

Indeed the far-right weighed heavily on an election during which Malta was shocked by the cold-blooded murder of Ivorian national Lassane Cisse Souleymane, and the attempted murder of two other migrant workers, by two young Armed Forces soldiers in a senseless drive-by shooting in Hal Far.

The murder and arrests prompted Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to make an impassioned plea to his voters during an election rally not to downplay the danger of the far-right, in particular the eccentricity of Norman Lowell.

For too long now, Lowell has been handled with kid gloves by unprepared and unquestioning journalists and politicians: allowed to expound his admiration of Adolf Hitler on cable TV, glorifying eugenics and the elimination of “horribly deformed” humans, and even laughing off Auschwitz as the “Disneyland of Poland” despite the mere trivialisation of the Holocaust being a criminal offence in Malta.

Nationalist MP Claudio Grech: “There is no future for Malta if we ingrain an island mentality in our children’s minds growing up in a world which is hyper-connected”
Nationalist MP Claudio Grech: “There is no future for Malta if we ingrain an island mentality in our children’s minds growing up in a world which is hyper-connected”

“I think we need to understand why this is happening, we need to be asking questions,” says Maria Pisani, a former IOM head of office in Malta who now lectures at the University of Malta.

“What’s the appeal? Is it ideological? A protest vote reflecting disillusionment with mainstream parties? Disengagement from the political process and having a laugh?

“Mainstream parties pandering to the far-right and in the process normalising (and fuelling) extreme ideologies? Loss of privilege, fear and a sense of rootlessness or growing inequalities and economic insecurity? All/none of the above and more?”

No easy answer to the question, as Pisani concedes in trying to make sense of the thousands of voters who probably ditched party loyalty in the European elections to prop up Lowell – just days after the arrest of the Souleymane murder suspects.

“An openness to dialogue needs to be grounded in respect – fuelling violence and hatred is unacceptable. Every single member of our society has a right to dignity, to feel safe and respected. Our political class and those in positions of influence, in particular, need to set the standard and be held to account when they fail to live up to these very basic standards,” Pisani says.

 Academic Maria Pisani: “What’s the appeal? Is it ideological? A protest vote reflecting disillusionment with mainstream parties? Disengagement from the political process and having a laugh?“
Academic Maria Pisani: “What’s the appeal? Is it ideological? A protest vote reflecting disillusionment with mainstream parties? Disengagement from the political process and having a laugh?“

But Pisani also believes that the far-right discourse targeting migrant communities, is scapegoating some of the most marginalised members of Maltese society for an unsustainable economic model adopted by various governments across the years.

“Let’s face it, migration is nothing new for Malta. There is no denying that Malta has undergone massive social, cultural and economic changes over the past few decades. Migrants (or some migrants) are then blamed for ‘our’ loss of values – and this is generally framed within a racist discourse – and the growing economic disparities and financial insecurity from competition, low wages, and the rental market to name a few.”

Holding up the Maltese experience to the rest of the world, Pisani says that such discussions on ‘Maltese identity’ are framed in an ethno-nationalist discourse, ostensibly ignoring the backdrop of neo-liberal globalisation and the way this affects peoples’ lives.

The dean of the University of Malta’s faculty of social wellbeing, Andrew Azzopardi, takes the problem further, right to the political class.

“From a social perspective, it is an indication of the embedded racism that has been building up due to the public discourse and the insensitive political dialectic by politicians and wannabe MEPs,” he said, adding that Malta must urgently refine its anti-fascist culture.

“We need to intercept fascist rhetoric and put politicians who cross the line into hate speech on  their toes. Ultimately I believe in the language of persuasion… language is a massive issue that needs to be addressed. We need to stop sending the wrong messages in the media,” he said.

Confronting the natives: anti-fascist protestors take on the activists of Moviment Patriotti Maltin
Confronting the natives: anti-fascist protestors take on the activists of Moviment Patriotti Maltin

But Azzopardi also proposes that academics, activists and community leaders, together with politicians, have an important role to play in active integration programmes as well as urban planning – a factor that also accounts for the state of communities that attract migrant workers seeking cheap rents, such as St Paul’s Bay or Hamrun, and villages in close proximity to asylum reception centres, like Marsa and Birzebbugia.

Claudio Grech – a politician who in the past has complained about the state of the Marsa asylum centre – believes the solution lies primarily with the thought-leadership of the mainstream political parties.

“We need to realise that this type of sentiment will drive us towards an insular mentality on which toxic agendas find fertile ground to flourish. Indeed I deem it to be a wake-up call for mainstream political parties to react with an adequate policy response,” he told MaltaToday.

“We should strive harder to encourage our children to embrace multi-culturalism and the notion of an international community thriving and shaping in Malta,” Grech says, sounding far off from his party’s billboards that complained of foreign labourers inflating population figures.

“There is no future for Malta if we ingrain an island mentality in our children’s minds growing up in a world which is hyper-connected.”

But he insists that ghettoisation in places like Marsa, St Paul’s Bay and Birzebbugia should be avoided at all costs. “It is a far cry from integration. In fact, the Lowell phenomenon is particularly evident in these areas and in districts where resident migrants might have contributed to problems of law and order.”

Grech also says the exploitation of already indigent people creates a domino effect that dilutes wages of regular employees and in turn, Maltese workers look upon these migrants as the villainous reason for their own misfortunes.

“In a country scrambling to engage human resources, we should be embracing foreign workers seeking to work regularly and above-board. What should never be tolerated is irregular employment which dilutes wages of regular employees and exposes these migrant workers to shoddy work practices,” he said.

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