[ANALYSIS] Muscat and the seven-year itch

Is opposition to the massive take up of agricultural land and uprooting trees, among some floating voters the first sign of the proverbial seven-year itch in what has, so far, been a  happy marriage?

Muscat may take comfort at the disastrous state in which the opposition has found itself in the past years but he can’t ignore signs that some of those who supported him are starting to feel an itch
Muscat may take comfort at the disastrous state in which the opposition has found itself in the past years but he can’t ignore signs that some of those who supported him are starting to feel an itch

Sure enough opposition to projects like the Central link road network do not in any way threaten the government’s hold on the electorate.  

Not only can Muscat bank on a silent majority which loves their cars and sees road widening works as confirmation of Muscat’s reputation as a ‘doer’ but all this is also happening in a context where the parliamentary opposition is in a state of chaos.

But a protest movements motivated by environmental issues may well erode trust in the government among strategic segments of the electorate which were also crucial to Labour’s victories.  

Muscat may take comfort at the disastrous state in which the opposition has found itself in the past years but he can’t ignore signs that some of those who supported him are starting to feel an itch, which can only get worse if the party machine is deployed to delegitimise critical and non-partisan voices.

Are switchers feeling the itch?

There is a misconception-propagated by some of the government’s most vehement critics- that switchers in 2013 were motivated solely by personal gain or that the PN lost the 2013 general election simply because it did not grant enough permits or that Labour won the 2017 election cause people are in love with corruption.

While probably the heterogeneous segment of switchers included some who felt disappointed at not being granted permits by the PN, it also included a critical mass of people who voted simply cause they felt a big itch with the PN in government, which was also associated with environmental degradation and the infamous local plans issued in 2006.

The second misconception is that concern on environmental issues is limited to Nationalist leaning sector of the electorate. While this is partly true in view of the fact that quality of life issues tend to be more a priority for middle class voters, it ignores floating voters some of which went Labour’s way after voting for the Greens in mep election in 2004 which saw Arnold Cassola garner 23,000 votes.

It also ignores traditional Labour voters who had come to resent the PN’s environmental record and are disoriented with Labour’s love affair with the developers’ lobby.

While there were signs of Labour’s pro development bias before 2013, the party still managed to convey a pro environmentalist image.

Labour went as far as promising a ban on circus animals to appeal to the sensitivities of the same electorate which presently finds itself appalled by the destruction of trees. The understanding among many was that Labour could only do better than the PN.

Although Labour’s green image was  already in tatters by the 2017 election, the performance of the government in other spheres and the revulsion  felt at the possibility of seeing the PN back in office after just 5 years, kept most switchers in line. One may well argue that ‘hypocritical’ declarations by the PN establishment on the environmental was what gave Muscat a license to ride roughshod in his first term of office, simply because the itch for the PN was greater than disappointment with Labour. Ironically the more establishment figures in the

PN speak against the central link project, the easier it becomes for Labour to reign in dissent among its own supporters. But with the PN having little chance of getting to power next time round, switchers may reclaim their independence.

The rise of civil society

Ironically the current crisis in opposition has brought a new sense of freedom for people to criticize government. Clearly in the current climate criticizing the government does not automatically turn you in to a nationalist. The scale of Labour’s majority may have actually emboldened those who see little chance of the PN coming back to power but fear the risk of an omnipotent Labour government.

This environment is favourable to the rise of civil society even if this comes at a risk of social media panic spurred by misinformed claims. 

This in itself reinforces the need for established NGOs who can mediate between popular anger and the realm of science and facts.

Muscat facing new concerns

Joseph Muscat’s reaction to criticism on the central link project also suggests that he is finding it a bit difficult addressing post 2013 concerns after successfully addressing more material concerns prevailing under PN led administrations.

On Sunday Joseph Muscat lamented that the government didn’t get any thanks for finally deciding to implement the “much needed” Central Link Project.

Muscat mainly justified the project on the basis of a commitment in the 2006 local plan for an even larger project. Yet the 2006 local plans, which unleashed a variety of environmental disasters, are not exactly something people look up to.

After noting that the project had been in the mind map of both major parties for many years he took pride in the fact that the Labour administration was the only one willing to take a serious decision.  

Critics may well see this as an admission by Muscat that he had the audacity to do what the Nationalists planned but could not bring themselves to do.

Muscat’s strongest argument is that the project will alleviate traffic congestion and thus reduce emissions. But this ignores what the project’s EIA calls “clear evidence that new or expanded roads rapidly fill with displaced or induced traffic, offsetting any short-term gains in eased traffic flows”.

So far Muscat has been very good in addressing concerns of people before 2013 like the price of electricity, but struggles to understand the new landscape he created himself.  

Some of his on-line supporters also tend to express frustration that their government is not “allowed” to do what the Nationalists did to the environment when in government, ignoring the fact that popular concerns have changed.

Although Muscat probably remains in synch with a large segment of society which sees road widening as panacea for congestion, pitting car owners against environmentalists may actually backfire.

This is because Malta is becoming less homogenous and quality of life concerns often reflected in life style choices are transcending traditional political divisions. 

Moreover the central link project may well have awakened an interest among an apolitical component of the population. In a two party system one can’t afford to alienate vocal minorities, especially agenda setters with an untarnished positive image.  

Associating these critics to the PN borders on the kind of partisan insanity which Muscat himself tends to be averse to.