Malta after the election: Trust, the establishment and populism

Elections in Malta are very heated and hotly contested. That is bound to happen in a country with less than half a million inhabitants where everything tends to be black or white.

Everything tends to come in twos on the island. Political parties in Parliament (though there is a partial change this time round), support for football teams, village band clubs, you name it.

Over the past few years the country has become considerably more cosmopolitan and also less rigid in its views. Divorce was introduced to the surprise of many and since 2013 civil liberties which were unheard of until a few years ago have become a reality.

For a certain segment of the population, myself included, this was an extremely important election. The Maltese constitution had been showing signs of strain, the country’s checks and balances were not functioning as many would have wished them to function and the government was marred in corruption scandals. As an example, the country had five police commissioners in four years.

The situation was so bad that a group of lawyers called advocates for the rule of law took out adverts in Sunday newspapers to speak about the importance of the rule of law and to call for constitutional change.

It is not common for elections to be held at the same time as a country holds the EU presidency. In Malta, it is also not common for an election in Malta to be held early even though there were signs that this was going to happen.

The election ended up being rushed because of serious allegations on corruption which threatened to destabilise the country’s economy and also the last two months of the EU presidency.

I will briefly try to draw the lessons learnt from this election from a Maltese context but also look at what is relevant in a European and global context because ultimately today’s challenges are similar everywhere.

So let’s start at the beginning.

To start with what happened in Malta you need to look at three key words, trust, the elite or establishment and populism.

Trust

Trust in today’s world is fundamental. In the age of fake news and post-truth politics, social media and constant communication, words come easy. But when it comes to trust, it is not words that are trusted but actions.

How could a government that was marred with very serious allegations of corruption, a minister and a Prime Minister’s chief of staff being caught opening companies in Panama days after the 2013 election win so handsomely and repeat the record result of 2013? How could it be trusted more than the oppostion?

For this we need to look at the recent history and also the political system of this island economy.

Maltese elections are different to elections elsewhere in Europe. A turnout of over 90% of eligible voters is not only common but it has been a recurring factor over many elections.

Many expected that a sense of ‘normalcy’ would take over the island after EU accession but to date that has not been the case. We need to start in 1981 when the Conservatives (the Nationalist Party) won a majority of votes but failed to govern the country because they did not win enough parliamentary seats to govern. This anomaly led to a perverse result which was constitutional but clearly not democratic.

The Labour Party, today’s party in government, governed over a number of turbulent years between 1981 and 1987 and finally addressed the issue with a constitutional change that ensured that in future, any party which held a majority would govern. Many things happened between 1981 and 1987 which broke the trust that the electorate had with the Labour Party.

That defeat was the start of a monopoly in government of the Nationalist Party or Christian Democractic conservatives that was only interrupted for a short while between 1996 and 1998. If you had to exclude those two years, the Conservatives have held a majority on the island for an incredible total of 30

For 23 years, they have been entrusted with governing the island, modernising it to a fledging economy, building its infrastructure and leading the country to EU accession in 2004.

Because of this track record and because of these results, the Conservatives at times feel as if they have the right to govern the country. They feel that they have always been on the right side of history, the Labour Party on the opposite side. There is a certain streak of arrogance. The PN has a tendency to think that ‘we know better’.

The tide started to turn in 2008 just after the Labour Party lost its umpteenth election, this time by just over 1,000 votes. It was at this juncture that Dr Alfred Sant, today an MEP, resigned after a third election defeat. Many believed he should have resigned in 1998 but instead he stayed as leader and the result was another 15 years in Opposition for his party.

That decision proved costly for the Labour party. Any other leader would have probably won the election for the Labour Party in 2008 and today we would probably be speaking about something completely different.

In a country that is small, resistance to change is a given

The Labour Party went through a very long process of change which was very painful. In a country that is small and extremely polarised resistance to change is a given.

Populism

Through this process of change, the Labour party became unrecognisable from 2008 and 2013. It recognised its mistakes from the past, apologised for them and rallied to the cry of Malta taghna lkoll (a country for everyone). It opened itself to anyone who wanted to help. The party became electable again which brings me to the second point populism. In this case this did not necessarily have negative connotations like far left or far right but rather it was populist in the way it went out searching for votes in different communities and categories of voters telling the people what they wanted to hear.

In 2013, the electorate decided that the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. There were a lot of warnings coming from the Nationalist Party, including how the Labour Party would run the economy to the ground. But these were ignored by the electorate that was now fed-up with the PN and their mistakes in government. A large majority did not take notice.

In 2013, the Labour Party won an election with a record majority in a Maltese context. While it has always been the norm for an election to be won by a few thousands votes difference, this time the Social Democrats had a 36,000 majority which gave them a seven seat majority in Parliament.

What had happened was that Maltese had lost trust in the Conservatives. There were many factors that led to this state of affairs but it is not today’s purpose to delve into these.

The PN faced countless problems from the introduction of divorce which was contentious in the party to corruption allegations. Needless to say, that and many years in government eroded the people’s trust in the party.

This proved costly for them in this election. Since the battle cry for this election was good governance and a need to modernise Malta’s system of checks and balances and the rule of law (with elimination of corruption also in the mix), few seemed to believe that the Conservatives had what it takes to carry out these changes.

It was more a question of choosing the lesser of two evils it seemed. And while many thought that the lesser evil was the PN, the majority did not think so.

So when they came to present themselves as the party which would introduce proper governance, which would tackle corruption, which would change the way people in key positions such as the Police Commissioner were appointed, they were simply not trusted.

The electorate judged them as not credible. Trust had been breached. It seemed like no one in the Opposition realised the extent to which people had lost trust in it.

A party in shambles

The Nationalist Party was in shambles. Completely discredited by the electorate it started a very slow process of rebuilding itself. It faced an uphill struggle. The party was close to bankrupt and it had been deserted by many of its supporters and key members.

For a number of months, which then turned to years, the country’s real opposition came from a single blogger, Daphne Caruana Galizia who exposed one government scandal after another. There were times when it was exasperating. There were times when it looked like there was a scandal every day. All was not rosy for the new government. But the Opposition lacked the credibility and the trust to put up a fight.

This blogger, who members of Government and its supporters call the ‘hate blogger’ revealed the information that a government minister and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had started the process to open companies in Panama just a few days after the 2013 elections using the same accountancy firm which also became the representative of Mossack Fonseca in Malta.

Subsequently, when the Panama Papers were released, there were also emails which revealed that a third company had been opened which went by the name of Egrant. The accountant representing Mossack Fonseca told the company in Panama that he would reveal the ultimate beneficiary owner through Skype, presumably because the name was too important to reveal by email.

This became a never ending saga that gave the Opposition the possibility to fight the election on an equal footing.

The government had been battling with anger following the revelations that came out from the Panama Papers. The former leader of the Labour Party Dr Alfred Sant and a senior minister said in no unclear terms that these should have resigned or forced to go. But nothing happened.

In most circumstances, one would have expected resignations but this is Malta, where a resignation culture is nearly non-existent even if the electorate has started to become more demanding over the years.

Some felt that the Panama Papers would end up being the albatross around the Prime Minister’s head but many failed to understand the relevance of the Panama Papers and what it actually meant.

During the election campaign, the Prime Minister admitted he had made an error of judgement to retain them but added that he had needed them to carry out his projects. He also said it would be up to the people to decide whether these would be reappointed or not. Konrad Mizzi, the disgraced minister is now tasked with tourism and with trying to save the national airline Airmalta from bankruptcy. The chief of staff also remained in position even though he is the subject of two magisterial inquiries into alleged money laundering.

As the opposition and members of the public became more vociferous, organising protests in the streets, Daphne Caruana Galizia, the blogger, journalist and columnist, upped the ante in April when she alleged with the help of a Russian whistleblower who worked in a private bank with a reputation for dealing with political exposed persons including many from Azerbaijan, that the third company that had been opened in Panama at the same time as the companies of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and his minister belonged to the Prime Minister’s wife. There was a paper in the bank’s safe, which the whistle blower had copied which declared this.

The news spread around like wildfire and stunned the island. The Prime Minister and his wife vociferously denied this strongly but his failure to act against his chief of staff and his minister meant that many who had given the Labour Party the benefit of doubt started to question the Prime Minister’s actions.

The Prime Minister called for a magisterial inquiry immediately to clear his family’s name but still opted to go to the polls putting ultimately the decision in the court of public opinion even though the inquiry is still ongoing. What happens if and when the magisterial inquiries are concluded remains to be seen.

The government’s actions when it came to transparency, to governance and meritocracy over the past few years angered sections of the population. They were angry and also vociferous because the government had done exactly the opposite of what it pledged to do.

There was no transparency, there was no accountability and there was little meritocracy. Instead of using the comfort of a massive majority to modernise the country once and for all and to really carry out much needed reforms, the Prime Minister appointed one of his henchman, a former journalist to the Office of the Prime Minister whose job it was to blog and ridicule people who spoke against the government.

The battle cry of the opposition, of civil society, the church and the media was corruption, the rule of law and good governance. But ultimately, corruption, while one of the most important issues when it came to polls prior to the election, has never been a winning factor in elections.

More and more people became vociferous on social media and took pen to paper. But that illuded the Opposition to the reality on the ground. While many seemed to understand the importance of these values, many others felt that the Opposition did not have the necessary credibility or trust to deliver the goods.

A vote against the establishment

It is not easy to follow an election campaign from a distance. You are cut off from the everyday reality. At the same time you can take a distant view.

The polls had clearly been indicating that the Prime Minister was more trusted than the leader of the Opposition throughout the legislature. To top it all, the polls indicated a comfortable victory for the incumbent party. But few within the Nationalist Party believed this was the case. They were getting different signals. And while they were chasing successfully people, the party in government was also winning new supporters.

So while the Opposition was under the impression that the tide was turning and that their campaign was working, the result was the opposite.

The Government was prepared. Just like it had done four years earlier it segmented the country into different ‘markets’. And it tackled each market segment and pockets of society to try and attract a comfortable majority vote.

Was it the use of big data? Was it a focus on key segments of the electorate? Was it the populist messages to give people the things they wanted to hear? Whatever it was, it worked.

There were reports of using crude approaches like calling members of the electorate and asking them what they wanted. At first some thought this was a mistake as they were targeting even supporters of the Opposition. It wasn’t. Speak of the power of incumbency.

With a new majority, it retained pretty much the same distance, a disaster for the Nationalist Party, given that it shared its platform with another party on the ballot papers (given the electoral system) and ended up making no gains after four years in opposition.

Abraham Lincoln once said that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. That was perfectly valid for the Nationalist Party.

Despite four years in government, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat continued to speak of the Opposition as the ‘elite’ and as the ‘establishment’ despite the fact that he had been at the helm for four years and was now the establishment. The majority believed him.

Prime Minister Muscat’s master stroke was in putting this in the public discourse and leading the electorate to believe that he was fighting against the establishment. When the opposition came out with very serious allegations of corruption and money laundering the government and its supporters were quick to shout ‘Fake news.” It became difficult to decide what was real and what was possibly false.

During these four years he had governed with relative ease amid an economic transformation that could be considered a miracle.

There were various reasons for this economic miracle. First the opposition had laid the foundations for growth. Financial services and online gaming, two sectors which have grown in importance for the Maltese economy continued to boom. Tourism went from strength to strength, property prices shot up propelled by a rent economy that emerged as more and more expats went to work in Malta. Most of the results came from keeping the boat moving in the same direction.

The other merit was for a Socialist government to do what a conservative party had failed to do which is to partially sell the loss making energy supplier to the Chinese in a controversial deal while also lowering energy prices for consumers in the process. (Both these were however marred in controversy)

On top of this, you need to add a controversial sale of Maltese passports to the world’s richest. This passport scheme has also been very controversial locally but it has helped the economy by injecting money into the country’s economy both directly and indirectly. Whether this is a viable and feasible option in the longer term is something that remains to be seen.

The scheme was ingenious in that it enabled professionals such as lawyers to provide their services to people looking to acquire a Maltese passport. This led to many lawyers from the opposition party to directly benefit from such sales of passports and ensured that the criticism to the scheme was less than one would have expected. The public outcry was larger than the opposition’s outcry. People making money from the scheme had little incentive to criticise it. This was a pattern the government used repeatedly either to win votes or more importantly to silence its critics.

During the four years in government, the Opposition found itself outsmarted every time despite the allegations of corruption that seemed to start denting the government’s reputation.

For every step forward the opposition made, it took another step backwards as the government hit back against the Opposition.

By the end of it, Malta has found itself with a government that did many good things both for the economy and for civil liberties but at a significant cost to the rule of law, to good governance, to transparency. The Prime Minister turned a blind eye to what seemed like blantant wrong-doing.

It also found itself with a toxic opposition that despite its pledge to clean up the system, despite entering into a coalition with a small party composed of one former Member of Parliament who sat on the government benches, is no longer considered to be part of the solution by a large majority of the electorate.

The election result shows that the people are not yet ready to forget and forgive.

Malta after the election

Malta today finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It has a very strong government that has a solid reputation on the economic front but a weak one when it comes to good governance. Whether this new government will learn from its mistakes still needs to be seen. The initial signs are not good already.

The Prime Minister has already declared that he will not seek re-election in the next election meaning that he has a unique opportunity to govern without any concerns for votes.

One hopes that the signs we have seen before the election like trying to curb freedom of speech, of trying to attack the messenger rather than address the message and of having the police force close an eye to wrong doing do not get worse.

There have been criticism of the independent media but the Prime Minister has tried as hard as possible to avoid being interviewed by the independent media after the Panama cases. You need to remember that in Malta, political parties have their own media.

During the last year of government there were attempts to curb freedom of speech through a proposal to amend the press law. The government backed down because of criticism but what will happen now?

There is talk of the importance to have a united front, to decrease the dose of criticism. Given this is a Mediterranean country we are speaking of, the discourse can get pretty heavy. But this is a worrying development because ultimately no one should be muzzled into not criticising the government for its action or inaction on the excuse that this can harm the country.

The Government has shown itself ready to do whatever it takes to influence public opinion and curb criticism through public appointments, even of those who had criticised it in the past, so that it limits the number of people who actually criticise it.

To top it all, an employee in the Office of the Prime Minister has been used to target people who spoke out against the Government through a blog despite the fact that he was doing so with taxpayers money. It led many to believe that what was happening was being sanctioned by the Prime Minister. If it was aimed to be the government’s replica to Daphne Caruana Galizia, it has backfired but few from government’s side seem to take notice. When they complain about the blogger’s behaviour they do not acknowledge that what is being done by the government is not just the same, it is much worse.

Is Malta going down Hungary or Poland’s route? Only time will tell. But the signs after four years of a populist government are not so good on various fronts.

The electorate and the government will tell you that it’s the economy stupid. And this has really proven to be resilient and has flourished over the past years. But is it sustainable or will everything fizzle into thin air at some point?

You could say that the electorate voted for continuity even though with continuity come risks. Just before the election, there had been an attack on the country’s tax system for foreign companies in the form of what were called “Malta Files”. Many in the business community feared that the current government, because of its very weak response to the Panama Papers was not the right solution to clean Malta’s name. That risk on Malta’s favourable tax system remains.

They also feared for Malta’s reputation because there had been a failure by the Police to investigate serious allegations involving senior members of Government that were made by the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit which is a government agency established under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.

The government has handsomely won the election but finds itself with three worrying magisterial inquiries that could still provide political chaos in the country.

If one had to believe the Opposition and its scaremongering prior to the election, Malta is heading towards a catastrophe. It is still early to say. The EU presidency will come to an end without much fanfare, unless the Prime Minister comes out bruised from a debate at the European Parliament on Malta and the rule of law following the Panama Papers. What is sure is that the Prime Minister has disregarded the concerns of many by reappointing them as his chief of staff and as tourism minister again.

The country also finds itself with a weak if non-existent opposition and a government that wants to return to business as usual.

The reality today is that the Maltese fabric has changed. The Opposition has been crushed and unless something new emerges it is unlikely that it can regroup in time for the next election. To turn an 11 per cent gap will take a mammoth task and a complete rethink. The sooner this is realised the better it is for the country to get back to normality. Business as usual is not going to work. A thorough change is necessary.

What this election has made clear, however, is that in today’s turbulent societal changes that we are seeing everywhere, the past has been rejected in Malta. That lesson is relevant to Malta, it is relevant elsewhere.

The following is an extract from a speech delivered at the Hessen representation in Brussels. Views are my own.

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