The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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A PN outdone by a civil society network

Mark Said Sunday, 25 September 2022, 08:17 Last update: about 3 months ago

Can you recall on how many occasions the PN opted to speak out, protest, criticise or come out with better alternatives on any issue or concern related to a number of policies or sectors that impact Malta’s economy, security, environment, health system, good governance, rule of law and international reputation? Most probably it would be just the odd one here and there and only echoing what some other organisation or pressure group would have already inputted its say and position.

Civil Society Network started to protest corruption after Daphne Caruana Galizia broke the Panama Papers. Since then, it has been at the forefront of issues with the rule of law, good governance and democracy, catering mainly to young activists. It had to be the Marsascala residents and representatives of a number of organisations that protested against the development of a marina in the locality’s bay. It had to be The Valletta Residents Revival Group that first was up in arms against the late-night music legal notice. It had to be activists led by Graffiti that turned up and removed the loungers taking over the minuscule bay for the general public at the Blue Lagoon.

The Opposition's main role is supposed to be to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public. It should also help fix the mistakes of the Ruling Party. The Opposition is equally responsible for upholding the best interests of the people of the country. Yet a growing civil society network in Malta is having resources being channelled to programmes that develop it to the exclusion of the PN and political institutions such as Parliament. Many more are feeling that it is more virtuous to be a member of a civic organisation than of the PN. There is a grave danger in such an approach. Strengthening the civil society network that represents the demand side of the political equation, without a parallel strength of the PN as an opposition party, ultimately damages the democratic equilibrium.

The PN has long been bogged down in internal conflict resolutions with no end in sight and is more concerned with its own survival. It is somewhat reneging its constitutional role and function to hold the government to account. The political and democratic situation becomes graver in that while in a normal, democratic country the government of the day is presumed to govern, if not in full observation of, at least in satisfactory conformity with the basic precepts of democracy, good governance, the rule of law, justice and equality, on this minuscule island country the opposite has become the order of the day. An exceptional presumption has grown and continues to grow, that the ruling party governs in full disregard of those precepts.

Furthermore, the civil society network has no parliamentary representation. Of course, the far-fetched accusation that civil society groups are partisan political actors disguised as nonpartisan civic actors will always remain. They proclaim their non-partisan credentials while ostensibly harbouring former PN candidates and officials who are disaffected by the present PN leadership. The present government denounces both the goals and methods of civic groups as being illegitimately political, and holds up any contact between civic groups and the PN as proof of the accusation. Yet this does not make them more of a political movement than a civil society organisation.

As a political party with representation in Parliament, the PN ought to be considered one of the children of democracy. Yet the civil society network is rapidly becoming a favoured child of efforts to assist and redress democracy failings in Malta. It is expanding, developing and building on the ruins of a discredited PN. It might appear to be a reasonable and necessary endeavour but the almost exclusive focus on civil society is moving beyond fashion. It is threatening to become an obsession, a mantra.

The collapse of the PN as an established party makes democracy vulnerable to collapse. It is expected that the PN intensifies the accountability of our elected leaders by reinforcing the formal checks and balances but, instead, we are seeing a letting-down of such efforts. It had to be Repubblika that came up with such praiseworthy initiatives as how to reform Malta’s Parliament, its response to the government’s proposals to the Venice Commission or its concept of a new Malta and a new Republic.

As more time passes and the situation within the PN remains constant, if not regressing, we are witnessing a civil society becoming even more essential to checking prerogative state power and keeping politicians accountable to social constituencies, especially between elections. Government has more than once attempted to roll back democratic checks and balances and concentrate political power in the executive. It tends to feel very threatened by civic groups that are challenging its abuses of power. Several trends have collided to make the environment for civic activism more challenging.

The PN must strive to regain its former strong and respectable standing. Doing so will restore the democratic equilibrium. To do so, however, it must perform a radical and total transformation. From a weakly institutionalised party, often ephemeral, with poorly articulated platforms, weak organisation and lacking stable bases of support, it has to become an institutionalised party having strong, stable bases of support, robust organisations and labels that are distinct and valuable to both voters and candidates. A tall order indeed.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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