This column first appeared in Malta Today
You know how Netflix suggests shows “you might like” depending on your recent viewing? Well, I’m starting to think it has infiltrated my inner subconscious, or at the very least, Malta’s political landscape.
One such show which popped up on my radar is an acerbic comedy called The Politician, and the parallels with what is happening locally is often uncanny. The premise revolves around its lead character, Patton, an unnervingly ambitious high school student running for student body president (a mere stepping stone to achieving his childhood dream of becoming President of the US).
High school politics in this series is a mirror image of politics in the outside world, complete with slick, fast-talking advisors armed with the latest poll results, carefully manufactured PR stunts, and vice-presidents cynically chosen to tick all the right boxes to appeal to as many demographics as possible: gay (tick), black (tick), a woman (tick). Searching around desperately for his own VP to out-do the competition, Patton veers between a disabled student with cerebral palsy and a girl suffering from cancer. Both initially turn him down, refusing to be used as a token, but the latter eventually changes her mind and becomes part of Patton’s campaign.
In a review of the show, Patton is described as someone who “seems to have arrived at his political positions because they are advantageous, not because the issues he’s chosen to focus on are deeply important to him.“ Ring any bells?
Scrolling through news portals to catch up on the latest events, it is any wonder that I did a double take? Silly billboards using memes, teenagers on deckchairs in front of Parliament and a jeep going round calling for Minister Edward Zammit Lewis to resign.
Is it just my impression or have our most pressing issues in national politics been handed over to Millennials and their younger counterparts Generation Z? I realise that the PN in particular is desperate to woo young voters back into its fold, but I’m not quite sure this is how to go about it. It’s good to see young people becoming active in politics but I believe it must come from a place of sincerity and a genuine desire to “make a difference”, to use a hackneyed phrase. Unfortunately, there is something about this week’s events which smack too much of a studied, marketing approach. Not that very different, in fact, from Muscat’s infamous 2013 campaign which took the country by storm (but which had much more fast money behind it).
And another thing: it’s all very well to involve young people, but when they became the focus of the story rather than the actual leader of the party, you begin to wonder what the strategy is. If we look back at Muscat’s electioneering again as an example, he was always shrewd enough to make sure that it was all about him…the adoring crowds of youthful faces were his entourage, but whoever was behind his media image never let us forget who the main protagonist was. An omnipotent, larger than life character was built who (much to the downright bafflement and chagrin of his critics) still enjoys a widespread support base, despite everything that has transpired.
Of course, no one wants that kind of hyped-up type of idolatry of a politician again, because going down that route never bodes well. Following the roller coaster ride of the last few years, most people would be happy with just a measured, steady type of leadership with no frills and pizzazz.
One would think, therefore, that the time is ripe for the Nationalist leader to step in and fill this role, so why do the polls stubbornly indicate otherwise? It seems to me that what the current PN is consistently failing to recognise is that over the last seven years it has been flailing about trying to find the right cause which will ignite a fire in the pit of the stomach of young, disenchanted voters, which served it so well in the past.
When the PN was the Mecca for University and Sixth Form students in the days when Eddie Fenech Adami was at the helm, it was because he was campaigning on issues which directly affected their way of life: in the 80s it was a rallying cry against Mintoff’s authoritarian style of leadership which seemed intent on stopping people from having what they want at every turn, whether it was a colour TV set or the more crucial right to protest. In the 90s, it was a rallying cry to take us into the EU against Alfred Sant’s ill-fated decision to keep saying No.
In contrast, today we have a Labour administration which has given people everything they have ever wanted – and from a party which obstinately seemed to oppose any form of progress, it transformed itself into the Government of ‘Yes’. Obviously, the pendulum has now swung so much the other way that it is out of control and the burning question is, how do you rein in a populace which has become used to a laissez-faire type of leadership?
But back to the PN and its inability (according to the surveys) to strike the right chord with voters, something which has been happening since 2008 when it was voted in by a whisker. The reason why the nation’s love affair with the PN has soured so badly is as complex as it is simple. First of all (and I have been saying this since 2008, at least), you cannot keep repeatedly insulting the people whose vote you want. The sustained disdain by some Nationalists towards anyone who still supports Labour is repeated daily all over social media and just as I see these comments posted relentlessly day in, day out, so do others. Let’s start with the core working class base which would never, ever desert the PL, no matter what, let alone when they are described as sheep, brainwashed, ignorant, ħamalli, etc. Those kind of adjectives just put their backs up and make them even more entrenched, perpetuating their belief that Nationalists (and, by extension, the party) hold them in outright contempt and openly sneer at them. I believe the word which is often used is “jaqq”.
However, what many vociferous Nationalist supporters can’t seem to grasp is that when we speak of a 50k gap between the two parties, that also includes many people who switched their vote. Now tell me, why should anyone who has switched to Labour want to switch back to the PN when they are also constantly being called all sorts of names, from opportunists to mercenaries to criminals or even murderers by association who have blood on their hands? I can just imagine their reasoning, “well if that is what you really think of me then fine, up yours, you’re not getting my vote again.”
Speaking of which, Edward Zammit Lewis will learn this lesson the hard way when we go to the polls for calling his own Labour supporters ‘ġaħan’ (morons) even if it was in a private What’s App chat. (Of course, the fact that the Justice Minister was so very friendly, in what sounds like a sizzling bromance, with Yorgen Fenech even after he was named as the owner of 17 Black, makes his position even more untenable – what is the PM waiting for to make him step down?).
Apart from asking its supporters to tone down their antagonism against the electorate, what the Nationalist Party badly needs is to get down to brass tacks and focus on what people really care about. Now I am not suggesting that they search for an issue in a calculating way like Patton in The Politician, but to actually listen, or better yet, READ. People keep telling them what matters and it is all over Facebook. Less construction, better urban planning and traffic management, efficient and reliable public transport to reduce car use, a better solution for rubbish collection, more enforcement, protection of the natural environment, more public gardens, parks and greenery, less concrete, and generally making Malta a nicer place to live in. The PN needs to take a stand on how it aims to get to grips with the over-development which has caused our quality of life to deteriorate. So, is it willing to face the mighty developers head on?
Another area which has fallen by the wayside is its own ideology. The PN is a Conservative party, on the right of the political spectrum, and there is nothing wrong with that, so why does it keep hemming and hawing, trying to be something it’s not? Despite all appearances, I think that there is a still a considerable segment of the Maltese population which is conservative at heart, but which in these last few years has been sorely neglected. I am not speaking of just the older generation either, but couples raising young children, the middle-aged, and even young voters. There is a niche which has been left to flounder and I always wonder why. The liberal movement which has swept the world over the last few years has caused ripples in Malta as well, and the Labour Party cleverly rode that wave for all its worth. But extremism in anything is never a good idea. Once much-needed legislation for divorce and gay rights was introduced, the floodgates opened, and the insistence on pushing forward other controversial changes have been too swift and rushed, and anyone who did not agree has had to almost retreat (ironically) underground.
Some political party needs to give these people a voice and restore some much-needed moderation to this skewed picture…so who is it going to be?