The Malta Independent 2 March 2021, Tuesday

Is Malta facing a political rupture?

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 5 March 2020, 07:35 Last update: about 13 months ago

The recent Eurobarometer survey may have given hope to those who aspire to see a shift in Maltas political system. But the recent MaltaToday and Torca surveys (both polled after Eurobarometer) suggest that this is not the case.

Indeed they confirm that the Labour and Nationalist Parties are the only two parties with significant presence on Maltas electoral map, albeit being characterised by a large difference between the two parties which has been the case since 2009.

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The Eurobarometer survey provides some interesting numbers which point to different directions, for example: even though trust in the police has declined to 59% - lower than 68% in 2018 and lower than the EU average of 71% - this institution enjoys more trust than the written press (28%), the internet (35%), online social networks (25%), political parties (29%), the justice/legal system (45%) and television (45%). Incidentally, the Army is trusted by 71% of respondents, whilst 51% trust the Government, 44% trust parliament, and 53% trust the European Union.  Malta registered the lowest negative outlook on the EU among all member states. 

The Eurobarometer survey also points to general satisfaction with peoples standard of living. Though there was a slight decrease in the percentage of Maltese who stated they were satisfied with their life, the 92% approval rate is the highest positive figure throughout the EU. Similarly, economy and employment perceptions are high, though lower than in the previous year.

At the same time, the most important issues facing Malta are perceived to be immigration, mentioned by 62% of respondents, followed by environment, climate and energy issues (37%), rising prices and inflation (19%), housing (18%), and crime (16%).

With regards to political issues, almost 50% expressed satisfaction on the workings of democracy in Malta, 25% less than the previous year. 48% saying they were satisfied with the situation and 46% saying they were not: EU averages read 54% satisfied (57% for EU 27) and 44% dissatisfied. But in 2018, 71% of Maltese had said they were satisfied with the state of democracy in the country as opposed to 24% who were not. The highest level of dissatisfaction is among those aged between 18 and 24.

The Eurobarometer also reveals a significant drop in peoples positive perception of their country: 58% perceived the country's situation to be good or quite good”. In 2018, 87% of respondents held a positive perception of the general situation in Malta. Yet Maltas score is higher than the EU average.

It is important to note that the Eurobarometer respondents were interviewed between November 14 and 28, when Malta was facing political turbulence and protests concerning the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation. Hence, even though certain downward shifts in political trust are significant, whether these results will be replicated in subsequent surveys remains to be seen. I cannot but emphasise that social analysis needs to start from grounded realities, and not from ideological or identity constructs.

In this regard, The MaltaToday and Torca surveys strongly suggest that Malta is not in the midst of some political rupture. By and large, they replicate recent surveys and electoral results, both confirming that Labours power bloc is on solid ground, that there is a significant gap between the two major parties, and that third parties have failed to make any inroads: The Torca survey giving them 2.5%, against Labours 55% and the Nationalist Partys 42%.

In the meantime, fellow sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino is hypothesising that Malta is heading towards a one-party democracy(MaltaToday February 18, March 2). This is different from a one-party stateas it takes place within a democratic setting. As he puts it, this model is found in countries such as Japan, Singapore and Sweden, where one mainstream, typically centrist, political party maintains a willing coalition of interests' , what some sociologists including myself refer to as a hegemonic formation.

The Nationalist Party led a hegemonic formation for almost 25 years after 1987. Labour, on the other hand has been in power since 2013. But its massive victories since 2009 (including those in European and Local elections) reveal a historic consistency which was pointed out by Baldacchino.

In the final instance, Labour is winning the quintessential question: Which government do you prefer? So far, this seems to be the case even with a change in leadership.  

So, is political change at all possible in Malta? It is very difficult to reduce political change to one factor: culture, economy, social movements, lobbies, the media, force majeure, demography, and external sources are among the various factors which influence the political field - and this includes both government formations and policy changes related to specific issues. But it would be naïve to undervalue the influence of political parties in a small state characterised by hyper-personalised politics – something noted by political scientists Jack Corbett and Wouter Veenendaal.

Hence, if we are to agree, in analytical terms, that in Maltas democracy, the elected party in government has significant power over the state apparatus, then logically, we should agree that this can only be changed by another elected party in government, or by change within the party in government (as is the current case). This empirical observation is based on election results based on peoples votes. If we are into peoples politics, we cannot remove people from the analytical equation when we analyse governing formations. Within a context of significant demographic change, this analysis requires broadening and deepening.

Both todays Labour and yesterdays PN have shown that to win an election, a broad coalition led by a political party is required.  At the same time, for a broad coalition to be electorally popular, it must show that it is worthy of peoples trust to be in government. I do not necessarily agree with Baldacchino that it needs a big vision’ as was the case for example with EU membership. But I do believe that its strategy should be on the ground and in synch with peoples perceptions. It should act as a facilitator for coalitions on the willing. Its ‘vision’ could be an assemblage of plural visions under a universal banner. Which raises further questions: Where should political lines be drawn in the quest for votes? Is Maltas economic model worth the cost? Is the future unwritten, beyond the trends shown in value surveys and electoral results?

 

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta

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