[ANALYSIS] Does Malta face the threat of a democratic ‘one-party state’?

Labour has only been in power for six years, but what if it remained in power for decades in a quasi ‘one-party state’? MaltaToday asks whether the widening gap between the PL and the PN, and the unresolved civil war inside the Opposition ranks, is paving the way for a benign hegemony of sorts…

This is the picture of Maltese democracy after last month’s midterm elections: a strong government enjoying an unassailable lead, an Opposition in disarray after being reduced to its lowest score since 1951, weak and fragmented third parties operating against a backdrop of sustained economic growth, growing social inequalities and environmental pressures.

Some may see a strong risk of Malta becoming a Mediterranean version of Singapore, where the dominant power held power for 60 years.

Yet many seem to forget that Labour has only been in power for six years. And apart from the bitterness felt by some Nationalists at seeing Labour taking the posture of a ‘natural party of government’ following 25 years of Nationalist rule between 1987 and 2013, are there any tangible signs of democratic regression?

The following is a list of the indicators of possible risks and how these are mitigated or augmented by Malta’s institutional set-up.

1. The scale of the gap between the two parties is unprecedented in Maltese history…

Not only will it take a longer time for the PN to close the gap, but this increases the risk of implosion inside the Opposition’s ranks which may tighten Labour’s grip on power.

By the end of this term Labour would have been in office for 10 years. To some extent this was the natural length of Maltese electoral cycles. In fact, old Labour lost its majority in 1981 and the Gonzi administration only lived on borrowed time after winning by 1,500 votes in 2008. Yet the PN did defy this trend, ruling for 25 years in the period between 1987 and 2013, a cycle which had only been interrupted by Sant’s interlude between 1996 and 1998.

What distinguishes Labour’s victories since 2009 is the sheer scale of the margin between the two big parties, ranging from 35,431 in MEP elections in 2009 to 47,116 in local elections in 2019.

In contrast, the PN, despite winning a majority in six general elections out of seven between 1981 and 2008, never did so with a majority greater than 13,000 votes. While normally a party could win power back with a 7,000 swing, as Sant effectively did in 1996, now a change of government would require a swing of at least 22,000. This makes it even likelier for Labour to extend its cycle in government beyond the 10-year limit.

Yet can Labour be blamed for winning big? And does this necessarily weaken democracy? Super-majorities can also have a healthy side – giving governments legitimacy to carry out major reforms without fearing losing power. This has been seen in civil liberties where Labour has changed the country from a conservative laggard to a leader in LGBTIQ rights, but it has so far failed to use this power to rein in powerful lobbies like the construction industry.

Surely, when this is seen in the light of the institutional problems and the lack of checks and balances dating back to Independence, super-majorities may have unsavoury aspects, including the sense of impunity in cases of blatant incorrectness as was Panamagate.

But part of Labour’s success is also due to its lack of complacency in power, shown in its ‘can do’ attitude and its ability to respond to criticism, to the extent that two ministers were forced to resign in Muscat’s first term in office.

Muscat has also shown a remarkable ability to read the public mood. His decision to order a temporary stop to excavation works this week may have come late in the day, but confirms his flexibility in the face of public opinion. That was one reason why Muscat’s conduct on Panamagate remains inexplicable to this day and perhaps a reason why it was forgiven by the electorate.

2. Opposition has never been as weak as it is now and third parties are in a mess. But one can hardly blame Labour for winning big

An ineffective Opposition may actually be bad news for the government of the day. Not only does government need an interlocutor when proposing major reforms as Muscat himself has recently acknowledged, but the absence of a credible challenge from the Opposition may encourage complacency in government’s ranks, thus slowly eroding one of Labour’s major assets; its ‘can do’ approach to government.

Still, the major loss for the country would be the absence of proper scrutiny of government in parliament. The risk would be aggravated by a downward spiral with consecutive defeats discouraging the regeneration of the Opposition with new talent, which can find more promising outlets in the private sector.

The PN is already crippled by a mediocre shadow cabinet which is outclassed by Labour’s current crop of ministers.  The problem may get worse if the party does not get its act in order. Neither has the PN’s decline been compensated by the growth of vibrant third parties. Apart from the fact that a nazi apologist earned the pole position in the league of political midgets, decent third parties have failed in filling the gaps on the spectrum left by Muscat’s move to the political centre which was so effective in luring PN votes but which created disgruntlement on issues like low wages and environmental neglect.

Their failure to leave a mark in MEP elections, where voters can vote third parties simply to send a message to government to wake up on major concerns, speaks volumes about their inability to target and communicate with potential voters.

Countries which hold elections but which have had one dominant party

Italy Christian Democracy governed with different coalition partners for 40 years (1944-1994)
Ireland Fianna Fail was in power (alone or in coalition) for 61 out 79 years between 1932 and 2011
Sweden Social Democrats were in power for 40 years between 1936 and 1976
Japan Liberal Democratic Party governed for 60 years out of 64 since 1955
Singapore People's Action Party has dominated politics for the last 60 years

Stongest single party pluralities in Europe (MEP elections 2019)

Labour Party (Malta) 54%
Fidez (Hungary) 53%
PiS (Poland) 46%
Lega Nord (Italy) 34%
Socialists (Portugal) 33%
Brexit Party (UK) 32%

Maltese electoral cycles

PN 1962-1971
PL 1971-1987*
PN 1987-1996
PN 1998-2013**

*Majority lost in 1981 // **2008 election won by 1,500 votes

Size of majorties in post-independence history

1962 12,228
1966 6,882
1971 4,695
1976 6,303
1981 4,142
1987 4,785
1992 13,021
1996 7,633
1998 12,817
2003 12,084
2008 1,580
2013 35,107
2017 35,280
2019 47,116*

*All figures represent vote difference in national elections expect for 2019 figure for local elections

3. Big business always favours political stability and continuity over disruption

There is a risk of Labour becoming a vehicle of career and business advancement in a set-up where the lines between business and government have always been blurred.

The perception among business elites that the PN was a guarantee of stability and free markets contributed to the idea that it was the ‘natural party of government’. The EU issue itself provided the PN with an opportunity of merging a coalition, which included all business organisations in the country.

Moreover, under Gonzi, the GWU was often accused of undermining stability and the national interest whenever it took to the streets. This business-political relationship, often tainted by cronyism and suspicious land deals, was inherited lock, stock and barrel by the Muscat government, whose masterstroke was that of widening the net of beneficiaries beyond the more restricted circle in PN times.

In 2017 it was Muscat who managed to portray the Opposition as “a coalition of confusion.”

Muscat managed to widen his party’s appeal to business without alienating the Labour grassroots, who were kept on board by a rejection of austerity and the expansion of free childcare services, free examinations and even free school transport.

In this way the gains of the rich have not translated in material losses for the middle and working classes.

But there is a risk that this symbiosis between Labour and big business may become self-perpetuating. Moreover, under Muscat, Labour ignores the ‘moral question’ increasing the risk faced by political parties entrenched in power, of becoming vehicles for personal careers and business advancement.

4. Despite the bullish attitude of some Labour supporters, civil society has never been stronger

The demise of the Opposition has left a vacuum, which is being filled by a more vibrant civil society.

One reason for this is that the decline of the PN comes with a silver lining. It is difficult to tag anyone criticising government on issues like the environment as a closet Nationalist plotting Labour’s downfall. Civil society groups, especially those rooted in communities, have even managed to win significant concessions from government on issues ranging from the downscaling of the Zonqor university campus, stopping plans for factory expansion in Wied iz-Zring in Zejtun, to a revision of the reviled fuel station policy.

Yet their power to challenge the dominant economic model remains a major obstacle.

Anger at the recent spate of construction incidents may trigger a more populist opposition against pro-development policies.

Easier for Labour to pin down as a faction of the PN, is the plethora of ‘rule of law’ groups triggered by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. These have remained thorns in the side of the parliamentary Opposition, and have failed to make any inroads among the Labour-leaning segment. Their tirades against government corruption have often been met with unhealthy doses of opprobrium by government apologists on the social media.

But even when faced by their vocal and sometimes overblown criticism, the government cannot be accused of restrictions typical of authoritarian regimes in Hungary and Turkey. The worst we have seen on this front was the removal of flowers from the makeshift monument for the slain journalist. Although sometimes bullish in denigrating critics, Labour has so far not behaved in an illiberal way and its policing methods have been no worse to the heavy-handed approach in protests organised by groups like Graffitti under Nationalist governments.

The removal of censorship in the arts also contrasts with the moral policing of the Gonzi years. And despite the chilling effect of Caruana Galizia’s murder, media scrutiny of the present administration remains greater than that of PN governments in the 1990s, which is partly a reflection of a greater pluralism in the media landscape.

But the effectiveness of the traditional media, also damaged by the Egrant fiasco, could risk being sidelined by an effective use of the social media by government, coupled by the resilience of the party media.

All in all, Malta faces similar challenges to those faced by other Western democracies, augmented by the partisan grip on power which pre-dates Muscat’s government.

Whether the challenges will be further augmented by the super-majority knock-out effect remains to be seen.

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