Wednesday 12 May 2021

The stakes are high, but then they always are

This article first appeared on Malta Today

If, at the beginning of this year, you had to ask the Nationalist Party about its chances of winning this election I would hazard a bet that their glum faces would have said it all: zero to nil.

But then, came the Egrant allegations implicating Michelle Muscat and public opinion shifted. As the anger grew at the news that the Prime Minister’s own wife was suspected of being the ultimate owner of the mysterious Egrant offshore company (thanks to the accusations of an equally mysterious Russian whistleblower), suddenly the impossible seemed possible.

Could the massive, unprecedented 36k majority be actually whittled away as more and more disappointed, disillusioned people declared they were not voting Labour ever again? It could and it did. At the moment Muscat’s speeches are constantly appealing to those who refuse to vote and those who are still undecided. Interestingly enough, however, even Busuttil is referring to this unpredictable group of people, urging them to cast their vote for Forza Nazzjonali (even though there will be no such name on the ballot sheet), which tells me that even the PN is not convinced that they have enough votes to sweep into power.

There is a salient lesson to be learnt here for all politicians as a result of the situation we find ourselves in. Perhaps that heady 36k majority was simply too unrealistic, too far-fetched to be sustained for long. Perhaps no political leader should really have that kind of massive swing in his favour after all, because having that kind of power handed to you is not healthy for any one human being. Muscat in a recent interview said maybe his flaw was that he makes decisions too quickly, because he just wants to get things done, which he said, is why he kept Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri by his side, despite the revelations of the Panama Papers. One has to wonder, though, whether this particular quick decision was worth the political turmoil he has been facing for over a year? As the saying goes, the electorate puts you in the hot seat, but it is also the electorate which is capable of cutting you down to size if it feels it has been betrayed.

Meanwhile, the PN at the moment is riding the crest of the kind of support which it has not enjoyed for some time. Let us not forget that prior to 2013, there was already a crushing “defeat” of sorts for the PN when Gonzi just barely scrapped through to win with a wafer-thin 1500 lead over Alfred Sant in 2008. I vividly remember that it took months for the party in Government to get over the shock of just how close a call it was, and how it could not understand why not enough voters trusted the PN to run the country. There were times when, despite winning, I could still sense a sentiment of bitterness and resentment in the air. The five years that followed were spent in Gonzi trying to appease rebellious backbenchers, always very aware that he was hanging on by just one seat. One of those backbenchers of course, was none other than Jeffrey Pullicinio Orlando who helped the PN win the 2008 elections via those infamous, carefully orchestrated shenanigans where he chased Alfred Sant all over the island as he campaigned, taunting him about the Mistra issue, until the final showdown at the Broadcasting Authority press conference when JPO showed up with a press card. Alfred Sant promptly walked out. Is it any wonder that Sant responded to the news of JPO contesting with Labour with barely concealed distaste?

Then there was Harry Vassallo, at the time Chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika being arrested for some long ago VAT form which inadvertently had not been filed. Yes, dear readers, you read that right, arrested.

And, more recently, just a mere four years ago, who could ever forget the sight of Lou Bondi accompanied by a PBS cameraman, demanding to know what was going on, on the eve of the elections because a certain someone felt they were above the law and was not respecting the day of silence. Ah, memories.

The last elections also had their moments of hilarity, what with the colourful Franco “I am not your parrot” Debono popping up on all our stations, and being sent to speak in a political programme instead of Anglu Farrugia by the Labour party – an absurd decision if there ever was one. On that occasion it was Simon Busuttil who walked out, as I recall.

So really, you see, high drama and backroom intrigue have always been a hallmark of our quintessential Maltese elections. At each election there has always been ONE main issue which splits the country down the middle, and the rhetoric has always revolved around it being a “disaster” or “paradise” for Malta if one or the other party wins, depending on whom you believe. And, come on, don’t be naive, we all know that there have always been people in the backrooms pulling strings, maneuvering and leaking stories at the opportune time.

That said, if it feels like the tension is heightened this time round, that is probably true. It has to be acknowledged that the stakes are even higher for both parties this year because it was an unexpected early election in which the political careers of both men are on the line. If Muscat wins, it would be a great vote of confidence in his leadership, and he would have consolidated his mandate, while if Busuttil wins, he would have achieved the mother of all comebacks for the PN. However if Muscat loses, his political career will be in tatters and it will not only be a personal blow for him, but for the Labour Party. To the supporters, the prospect is unthinkable that once again, the party was unable to hold on to the Government it had fought so long and hard for. It would be like 2013 had never happened. If Busuttil loses, he too will face the wrath of his party for giving them such high hopes, and he will probably call it a day to be replaced by whoever has been drumming his (or her) fingers patiently, waiting on the sidelines to step forward.

There is also another reason why (online at least) this election campaign seems “worse”. It is because Facebook has played such a huge role with everyone canvassing (and spinning) for their favourite party. The political discourse has moved into cyber space where you cannot get away from it unless you don’t log on at all. In stark reality, to date I have not encountered any real tension out in the real world, not even in a long two hour queue to collect a voting document. On the contrary, a friendly kind of camaraderie was developed, with everyone trading banter and jokes, and suggesting all sorts of improvements on the current system. Seriously, we badly need a much better, computerized system, rather than the sight of two poor, harassed police officers helped by counting agents, painstakingly sifting through various papers and lists for names and addresses until the correct vote is located in the relevant stack.

What I have noticed online which has changed this week, however, is that more and more people are falling silent on Facebook because they are afraid of being shouted down, intimidated or just plain ridiculed for their views. Is this the kind of democracy we want? My way or the highway? It’s unacceptable. But that is also why people prefer to keep their views to themselves to the extent that they will not even reply to surveys. Who can blame them really? After all, the only answer that really counts is the one they give at the ballot box.

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