This column first appeared in Malta Today
The psychology behind why people persist in defending what their political party does when it is in Government, no matter how wrong it is, is something which has perplexed and baffled me for decades.
The most obvious explanation for this is quite straightforward: when they vote for a party, especially if they have been lifelong supporters and their family has always voted the same way for several generations, some feel such a strong bond and affiliation that their loyalty to the party is like an oath taken in blood. They have sworn allegiance, even though they have never quite actually said so, and it is an allegiance which brooks no wavering.
“Labour/Nationalist till I die”, read the Facebook pages, with the kind of blind, unswerving passion which many do not even reserve for their spouse, despite taking solemn wedding vows in Church. A husband or wife is often expendable and replaceable, but turning your back on the party? Never! Changing your mind and voting for the opposition? That is the ultimate betrayal.
In fact, if you notice, those who switch sides, especially those who make a point to make a public display of it, are often looked at with suspicion and are never really quite trusted ever again.
I am so fascinated by the staunch defence of political parties that I sometimes take a deep breath and force myself to read the more fanatic comments, just to understand what is really behind the manifestations of undying support. For example, when people complain about the mind-numbing construction in their street, you often get snarky comments like, “when your apartment or house was being built, other people had to put up with it too”. The rationale behind this remark, of course, misses the point completely that never in Malta’s history has there been so much ongoing construction throughout the island all at the same time. We recently learned in Parliament that a total of 10,455 building permits were issued in 2018 alone. Mosta, where I live, had among the highest number of permits, 420, which confirms that I am not imagining things when it feels like that there is a construction site at every corner.
Of course, the rebuttals against criticism of the Government are often much more in your face. In response to the Moviment Graffitti protest on Tuesday, one man wrote, “A bunch of people with nothing to do as long as it’s against the Government and against progress”. Others sarcastically wrote that, “I bet they all live in camps or caves”, and the inevitable, “these are all PN supporters.” The icing on the cake is invariably the hackneyed phrase that starts with “where were you….” in reference to the belief that no one ever protested during previous PN administrations. This latter, utterly mistaken, belief convinces me that, before Facebook made news stories more easily accessible, very few people actually followed current events let alone read a newspaper or watched the news. I hate to break it to you but no, protests did not start in 2013, nor did they start in 2007 when Facebook hit Malta.
The firm conviction that those who criticise the Labour Government do so because of some ulterior motive (namely, to bring it down) stems from the fact that as a country we do not have a culture of criticising those who we vote for. At some point in our history it seems to have become embedded in the national psyche that once you have cast your vote, it is as if you have sold your soul and become the property of that party: a case of “cast your vote, and thou shall never speak ill of the party again”. A major reason for this is undoubtedly due to the tradition of patronage and clientelism which has already been well-documented. It’s so much a part of our voting culture that politicians and voters sometimes don’t even bother hiding it, “give me your Number One and I will keep you in mind when the time comes, wink, wink.” So whether you need a job, a permit or some other Government goodie, you can just trot along to your local MP and cash in your favour. That is precisely the reason why neither of the two large parties are interested in changing Malta’s electoral system, and having a nation-wide vote for the general election (like the MEP elections) rather than it being divided into districts. Without all those candidates being able to promise stuff to their constituents how on earth would they get elected? And in case anyone is still wondering why small third parties never get anywhere in Malta, it’s because they are not in a position to promise any favours because they do not have that kind of power (nor would some of them want to).
On the same lines, criticising the Government is still seen by many as something you don’t do for the simple reason that “you never know what (or who) you might need” – again, this is the type of mentality which continues to sustain the system of patronage in a country where who you know is often the key which opens so many doors. Unless, that is, you refuse to buy into the whole charade, which is, I assure you, very possible.
Where I still fail to find any explanation for blind loyalty is among those who are not really getting anything in return. I can understand it if you are under some obligation because this or a previous Government made it possible for you to be where you are today in terms of your career or financial situation, but when it comes to the ordinary person, who is just getting by in his normal 9-to-5 job, there my comprehension falters. In fact, you will notice that those who have done really well because of political connections usually tend to have enough street smarts and savvy to stay mum and not get embroiled in online discussions, while the people at the grassroots, the true diehards, are the ones out there furiously battling with each other over their respective parties.
And it’s not just the Labour Government which has these type of supporters. Despite the party itself being in tatters, the two factions of the PN reveal a similar pattern: you will never see an Adrian Delia supporter saying in public that he did anything wrong, nor will you see any Simon Busuttil supporter saying anything of the sort. They cling on to them and keep them bolstered as if their lives depended on it. It is this inability and reluctance to criticise our politicians, even the ones we might support, which has done so much damage to our democracy.
Thankfully, it is not as across the board as much as it used to be. Compared to say, 30 or even 20 years ago, I feel many have broken free from the political brainwashing and the vice-like grip of “supporting my party until the day I die”. It is no longer considered almost heresy to bluntly and publicly say that this or that politician is wrong and should resign or that although you may have supported a certain political party at first, you have now changed your mind. People change, voters change, circumstances change and too many politicians definitely change once they taste what it means to have considerable clout. As the saying goes, if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. And since it is us who have given them that power by entrusting them with our vote, I don’t see why we should have any qualms about withdrawing our support once we feel we have been terribly let down.
Propping them up with our unquestioning loyalty no matter what, even when we are suffering from a reduced quality of life on a daily basis as a result of their terrible decisions, simply does not make any sense.