Malta elections: the return of Lawrence Gonzi
Adrian Grima - 13/03/2008
The governing Nationalist Party received 49.33% of the national vote while the Malta Labour Party gained 48.8%. Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party received 1.3% whilst the five-month-old Far Right party Azzjoni Nazzjonali (National Action), with its anti-immigrant, smaller State and pro-business agenda, garnered 0.5 per cent of the votes.
After the official announcement of the result, Dr. Alfred Sant, the Harvard graduate, novelist, short story writer and dramatist stepped down as leader of the Labour party and described his resignation as irrevocable.
The result was a personal victory for Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi who has been in charge for the past four years and has managed to turn almost certain defeat into victory after imposing a presidential style campaign which focused heavily on him as a new face in Maltese politics bringing with him a new style of government and politics. He managed to project this image mainly by presenting himself as a more environmentally friendly leader than his predecessor who handpicked him as his choice for successor, the patriarch of the conservative party himself, Eddie Fenech Adami. For weeks during the electoral campaign we were treated to pictures of Prime Minister Gonzi with people of all age groups against an artificial, greener than green, background.
To his credit, Gonzi started off as a golf course addict and slowly but surely kicked the habit, until it was nowhere to be seen in the Electoral Manifesto. But he was also the man behind the extension of building zones in a country where there has already been too much development, and the public outcry was not loud enough to make him change his mind – or perhaps he was too deaf. Not to mention the way the construction industry has continued to bully its way into every nook and cranny of our limited physical and mental space.
Decency and Sleaze
The heavy reliance on the media (including the so-called independent media) of the GonziPN campaign and the scaremongering tactics were not very different from Berlusconi’s forceful comeback through the media in 2006. In Malta it was “beware
,” the Labour leader, whilst in Italy it had been “beware the Communists.” Now Alfred Sant is anything but a leftist or communist, but as potential prime minister he was trailing in the polls against the apparently more affable, more media friendly Lawrence Gonzi. His party’s programme, the result of a long process of consultation, was, surprisingly, less convincing, and his revelations of corruption in the government of Dr. Gonzi failed to convince the electorate to vote for a change in leadership.
The generally civil and decent five-week electoral campaign reached its lowest point when the leader of Alternattiva Demokratika, Harry Vassallo, received a five-month old order related to VAT returns just two days before the end of the electoral campaign. As in previous elections, the Christian Democrats were warning their sympathisers that a vote for the respected Greens would mean a vote for their arch enemies, the dreaded Labour Party. The Conservatives’ top officials and much of the so-called independent media, including many self-proclaimed independent analysts, went into overdrive to dissuade people to give AD any type of support.
Although it appeared right away that the strategists had bungled the whole thing when a TV crew from the Nationalist Party’s media empire questioned Harry Vassallo about the VAT returns hours before he actually received the notification from the Police, this sleazy and undemocratic move, as the Leader of the Opposition called it, must have had the desired effect of denting at least some people’s faith in AD and its leader. Lawrence Gonzi made no effort to dissociate himself from the sleaze campaign led by the Nationalist Party media, and in his last debate with Alfred Sant on national television, just hours before the end of the campaign, he echoed the accusation, without claiming ownership for it, that Harry Vassallo had kept for himself money that he had received from people who had paid their VAT through him. This claim had already been convincingly refuted the day before by Harry Vassallo and AD, and Alfred Sant, twice during the same TV debate, chided the Prime Minister for making the accusation. But, as veteran journalist Godfrey Grima said later on national television, the media of the political parties, are not after the truth: they’re meant to satisfy their masters.
The End of the the Hunting Game
One of the less evident results of this general election is that the powerful and vociferous hunting lobby which has also held the main political parties to ransom in the past (the parties in turn made promises they couldn’t keep) and befriended the Far Right Azzjoni Nazzjonali this time round, has all but lost its bargaining power. This time, the two major political parties refused to bow to pressure by the hunters on the big issue of Spring hunting and said they would abide by EU law with regards to the inevitable ban.
Some observers have attributed the relatively low turnout in Saturday’s election (93%, 4% less than 5 years ago) to discontent not only among traditional Nationalist Party voters because of environmental and other issues, but also among hunters and trappers who support either of the two larger parties.
Whichever way one sees it, the fact that Alternattiva Demokratika has once again failed to elect a Green member of Parliament shows that it has also failed in the mission it had set for itself to change the face of Maltese post-Independence politics, that of undermining the duopoly or system of five-year “one-party dictatorships.”
It is true that the main political parties have devised an electoral system that makes it very difficult for a small party to get into Parliament because they have refused to set a reasonable national threshold (like 5%); and it is also true that the media and the institutions, like the Broadcasting Authority, are dominated by the two traditional parties. But it is also true that this election lacked any major issues, like joining the EU, and so it was the ideal moment to make an electoral breakthrough. AD has increased its share of votes but it has failed to make a decisive impact, other than the fact that its share of the vote means that neither of the two traditional parties has obtained an absolute majority.
One missing issue was what some would see as the general decline in the conditions of work and in the standard of living of the poorer members of Maltese society. Michael Grech argued in Malta Today that there was a general “disregard of real labour-related issues” during the electoral campaign. He highlighted the following issues: “The cost of living; the enslaving sky-high prices of property which in effect have turned abodes into enslaving liabilities rather than havens that provide shelter and comfort, eroded workers solidarity and did away with worker-rights agitation more effectively than any violent measure could; lack of security in certain industries and the extremely high number of workers dying on their place of work; and the exploitation of immigrants and low-wage earners through short-term contracts.”
Grech was particularly angered by what he described as an “immoral” billboard by the Nationalist Party, featuring “smart, stainless and well-dressed youths,” that “triumphantly and paternalistically” announced that “Gonzi jgib ix-xoghol” (Gonzi creates employment). He described the sentence as “ridiculous and demeaning, “our supreme servant turned into some benevolent demigod who procures our daily bread.” Grech asked rhetorically whether all Maltese workers are clerical and middle-class, as they appear in the picture, and why no boiler-suit wearing worker, farmer or construction industry employee was represented. “Are all Maltese workers in their 20s? What about people in their 40s and 50s who have been made redundant and are looking for a job? Why are all the workers represented able-bodied? Are there no over-weight, bald or white-haired workers? Are all workers employed in Malta white?”
In its memorandum to the political parties bofore the election, Zminijietna – Voice of the Left urged the new Government to “urgently introduce measures to reduce the impact of economic burdens which are being felt in Maltese society due to neo-liberal economic policy, privatisation and liberalisation.” The group said that the Government’s economic policy should bring about growth, stability and equality and that it was in favour of wealth redistribution, progressive taxation, policies which defend public services. “Such policies should include public investment, and where required, nationalisation of sectors of strategic importance. We also believe in policies which encourage workers cooperatives.”
Immigration was another missing issue in this election. The Far Right tried, but failed, to make an issue out of it. Despite the harmful, deplorable and largely ineffective policy of longterm detention (it fails to keep immigrants away from the Maltese shores they never plan to reach anyway), the other parties consciously avoided to be drawn into any sort of quagmire about this complex and delicate issue.
On the whole, the extreme right fared badly. Apart from Azzjoni Nazzjonali’s 0.5% share of the vote, Imperium Europa’s sole candidate managed 0.03%. This is not to say that there are not many people out there (it’s hard to say just how many) who share some, or even many, of their views, but as the pundits put it, most people don’t vote on a single issue.
Then there was a lot of lip service to issues like the introduction of the Whistleblower Protection Act, an act that could help to stem corruption because it protects an employee of a business or government agency who reports misconduct to people or entities that have the power and presumed willingness to take corrective action.
There were also vague assurances with regards to the financing of the traditional political parties, which AD accuses of being held to ransom by the construction lobby. There was also no talk about reforming the latest “reforms” concocted by the two major parties to exclude the Greens from Parliament. The editor of the often straight-talking Malta Today , Saviour Balzan, is more than sceptical: “Gonzi will do nothing to bring about electoral reform or party financing.” A national threshold may prove to be a great boost for the Greens, so that’s not what the self-proclaimed independent press is talking about.
Balzan identifies other pressing issues that “are not in the Gonzi gift cart,” like the social reforms relating to co-habitation, divorce and gay rights. In its memorandum, Zminijietna – Voice of the Left claimed that “Malta requires progressive and inclusive social policy which caters for today’s realities of different forms of families. A process should be initiated whereby divorce is introduced in a responsible manner.” The group said that “the family – whatever its form – should be protected from economic and social burdens which result from a capitalist society. This is the best way to protect the family, beyond rhetoric.”
Even if you exclude the official party media, which includes newpapers, radio and TV stations, and online news services, most of the media did not fare particularly well during this campaign. The influential Times and Sunday Times were openly (or was it unofficially?) supporting the Christian Democrats, and the discussion programme on national television Bondi+ was dubbed Bonzi or even Gonzi+. Godfrey Grima launched a scathing attack on the media empires of the two major parties, describing them as useless and irrelevant because they preach the official party line to the converted. He argued that if the media manages to reform itself, it will bring about another major positive change in a Maltese society that has made giant steps in so many areas since Independence.
“The role of the free press is not to be on the side of the establishment,” writes Saviour Balzan, “but to question it.” Few, I suspect, would disagree with him - at least in public. But where do we go from there?