Tuesday 21 May 2019

Dirty politics in leadership races are nothing new

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Like many people, I have been silently following the PN leadership race, quietly observing from a distance, not caring to get into the verbal fray been played out on outline, but simply watching and waiting. My reasoning is that there are already enough opinions as it is, and really I feel that the four contenders have enough aggravation to deal with, without my two cents as to who would be the most suitable person to lead the party.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that that is in the hands of the PN General Council (made up of 1,500 delegates), which on 2 September will choose the final two contenders who will make it to the second round, upon which the 23,000 card-carrying members of the party (known as tesserati) will make the final decision on who the new leader will be in the election to be held on 16 September.

It is, in short, a purely Nationalist Party process, and yet, because the Leader of the Opposition is of interest to the country as a whole since he could potentially be the next Prime Minister, it is understandable that those who avidly follow political intrigue are lapping up each twist and turn as it develops.

The internal strife has been considerable, bearing all the hallmarks of a party which is in disarray, but the fact that it is has been marred by dirty politics is nothing new: we have been here before after all, albeit with the opposing party. Someone wondered recently on Facebook why the PL deputy leadership race was so relatively smooth in comparison, but it is obvious that it is easy to be less antagonistic when one’s party is in government and things are going well. Not so much was at stake between Helena Dalli, Chris Fearne and Edward Scicluna who were vying to be Muscat’s Number Two, and at least on the surface everything seemed to be hunky dory. It also helped that all three were already Ministers with important portfolios anyway so there was not that much to lose, but simply a new title to be gained and some additional clout within the Labour party structure.

But things were not always so peachy: we tend to forget that not too long ago, in 2008 in fact, the Labour party stood exactly where the PN is now. Remember when Labour was in a shambles after so many defeats? The same thing happened as is happening now. The entire future of the Labour party was on the cards; a party which lay in tatters, bruised and broken and seemingly directionless. More crucially, whoever took over the mantle of Labour leader had the unenviable task of making what had become a hopeless, unelectable party, electable again. Just like now, behind each candidate, there were many people who were jostling for their position just in cast “their” person was elected, who would then sweep in with his entourage of men and women, not to mention many, many behind-the-scene characters all eager for a slice of the pie.

Just in case you have forgotten,i n that memorable race the five contenders were George Abela, Marie Louise Coleiro, Evarist Bartolo, Michael Falzon and of course, Joseph Muscat. When none of the candidates obtained the necessary 50% + 1 majority of the vote, a second round was held between the two who had polled the most: namely Abela and Muscat. While the animosity was not immediately visible between the contenders themselves, there was plenty of infighting beneath the surface within the party itself. Don’t let all the grins, hugs and jovial slaps on the back fool you..

What they did not have to contend with, and this is making a significant difference in this race, was the ease with which leaked information can be spread via social media and online commentary. These days, it is just too easy to create waves and trip up your opponent by passing on potentially damaging information, or spreading a rumour or three, or sharing personal photos which had been rather naively laying around online until they were saved to a file to be used at just the right junction.

So those who speak of this race as being particularly nasty are right, but it’s not because of the information being unearthed per se, but because of the immediacy and public nature of it all. In the past, there were brown envelopes passed on discreetly and whispering campaigns which reached just the right ears which served to squash a candidate’s chances, but now every citizen is not only in a position to know everything but the citizen him or herself is in a position to share and distribute the information to his and her network of contacts as well. In effect, while we may not all be entitled to choose who the PN leader will be, if we are so inclined, we are all in a potential unique situation of being able to influence the vote. Drumming up support for any candidate using our own social network while simultaneously rubbishing the candidates we don’t like is quite easy to do, and the only reason not more people outside of the Nationalist Party circle do it is that not everyone really cares all that much. For more than half the country, frankly, whoever the new PN Leader will be will have zero effect on their lives.

Yet, for the other half, and especially that inner circle which is made of ambitious party activists and those who are pulling strings for their own personal motives, whoever is chosen to be the next leader of the PN is something which affects them directly. And while a strong Opposition leader is important for the country as a whole in order to provide the right checks and balances and avoid the Government from becoming too cocky, what is really at stake goes much deeper than that. Whoever is chosen will shape the future of the PN and possibly the country if the PN is elected to Government, in ways which we cannot quite foresee, taking it down one path rather than another, and moulding the economic and social fabric of the nation accordingly. (After all, if George Abela had been elected rather than Joseph Muscat, today the whole political scenario would have been entirely different).

So while Labour exponents may look at what is happening within the PN leadership race and smirk at all the fallout, I suggest they do not get too sure of themselves, for in a few years they too will be facing an election to replace Joseph Muscat who has made it clear he will not be running again. All gloves will be off, and those who seem to be on such chummy, good terms now, will switch to fight mode for that top prize.

And if this current race is anything to go by, I can only predict that in a few years’ time, dirty politics will get even dirtier.

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