The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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The scourge of Maltese politics – political parties

Kevin Aquilina Sunday, 19 November 2023, 08:32 Last update: about 8 months ago

Notwithstanding their enormous social and political clout, political parties that stand second after the state in terms of organisation are barely regulated by the Constitution except for a fleeting reference here and there. Indeed, when Malta got its constitution in 1964, there was only one reference to political parties – in relation to broadcasting that was lifted from the Broadcasting Ordinance 1961. This is to show how much irrelevant political parties were to the Constitution. However, since 1964, the Constitution has been amended several times and the political parties represented in parliament have since gained more recognition than in the past through other references to them in the constitutional document.

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The bare reference – bar one case – in 1964 to political parties in the Constitution must be contrasted with how the Constitution deals with organs, institutions, and offices of state it establishes. The political party – from the perspective of the Constitution – operates in the shadows of the state for whilst it is parliament and cabinet that share the limelight in state governance, it is the political party that is pulling all the strings and controls cabinet clandestinely which in turn controls parliament. Cabinet and parliament are entirely party-led and dominated. This also applies to the Opposition parliamentary group.

Nonetheless, whilst the Constitution establishes checks and balances for the legislature and the executive, it is totally silent in relation to the accountability of the political parties represented in the House of Representatives even if, as a matter of fact, it is these political parties that call the shots. In the House of Representatives, it is the parliament group that reigns supreme. But the parliamentary group is not established by the Constitution and is in no way accountable to the Constitution. There is, therefore, in this respect a democratic deficit whereby the country is ruled not much by the government of the day but by the political party in power that is unaccountable to constitutional state organs.

In his first letter to Timothy St Paul wrote – and I am not sure whether he wrote this letter before he had occasion to meet the Maltese and was already thinking of them, or afterwards – that ‘the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from their faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Tim 6:10). The Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales also considers the root of evil to be greed (radix malorum est cupiditas).

However, in the context of Maltese society of today, this biblical-literary teaching must inevitably be tweaked to reflect reality, to read that ‘the root of all evil – in today’s Malta – is greed and political parties. Greed apart, that is more of an individualistic vice, but then there is something more vicious than greed: that is the political party because it also thrives on greed in an organized fashion but goes beyond it as well as it serves to destroy the Constitution, the rule of law, and the common good.

Political parties are hostile to the political order. Whilst pirates were declared hostis humani generis – enemy of all humankind – political parties are enemies of the Constitution through their misdeeds.

It is the political party that is the root of division in Maltese society. It is the political party that owns radio and television stations that contribute to brain washing and indoctrinating the Maltese population. It is through the parliamentary group that the political party keeps a very tight grip on government or opposition MPs with their characteristic trait – not of open mindedness – but of blind faithful loyalty to what is imparted to them by the party whip who, in turn, takes his/her orders from the party leader. Even the whip structure is part of the political party’s hold on the parliamentary group and is not even recognized by the Constitution. Yet it is there, it operates in the shadows within Parliament but is not accountable thereto.

What Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela have managed to do was to sell the soul of the Labour Party – a socialist one – to capitalism and neo-liberalism. This economic and political philosophy is the pinnacle and legacy of Joseph Muscat to the Labour Party that is now faithfully continued by his successor. The Labour Party has thus lost its socialist identity – apart from lip service such as in the last budget – as it nothing more and nothing less than a neoliberal capitalist political party. It is a party without a soul.

Joseph Muscat was also successful – through the so-called populist ‘Labour Movement’ as opposed to the Labour Party – to attract those sectors of society that did not see themselves represented by any political party – something that the Nationalist Party were incapable of doing – thereby continuing to be a party closed in itself with no outreach to disgruntled members of society. By promising everything to everybody the Labour Movement grew and everybody found a home in this movement.

The Labour Movement thus ended a potpourri of different colours, shades, opinions, and interests loosely tied together with no common ideology in the classical sense of the term as its substratum – that is, a socialist ideology. But to appease discord and division that opposing views in one and the same party bring about, the Muscat administration – followed by the Abela administration – sought to ease such conflict through appropriation of state assets and distribution thereof to their clan. In this way, everybody was satisfied as all ended up receiving government land, direct orders, positions of trust, and other financial compensation that ensured that dissent within the party is fomented.

All this to the detriment of the socialist ideology and government coffers. The Labour Party has thus shifted from a mono-ideological party to a pluri-ideological party where the term ‘ideology’ must be construed not in the belief of one political system that is aspired but as a loosely held community with divergent views not knowing exactly what the real values of the party are or might be. It has transformed itself into a populist party.

The Nationalist Party also has ideological difficulties: it is an amalgam of conservative and neo-liberal factions that has departed from its Christian Democrat roots.

Today, in Malta, there are the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party that have, since 1966, alternated power amongst themselves. Then there are the fringe parties. These are the parties that are not electable such as ADPD, the latter being the largest conglomeration, notwithstanding all the effort put in to at least elect at least one MP. In reality, it is more of a pressure group than a political party as it has no representation in the House of Representatives and cannot therefore achieve what political parties vie for – power. There are finally one-person parties where the party hinges around a particular personality and, when that personality retires from politics, that party dies a natural death.

Political parties can be based either on a shared ideology or on a set of principles, based on the charismatic leadership of its leader, or on its mass appeal as is the case with populist parties.

The political party system as practised in Malta is a corrupt system.

First, the electoral system gives priority to the candidate, not to the political party. This means that candidates will go out of their way to appease their constituents to grab their votes at all costs. Look at ministers how they irresponsible employ people with the public sector as if the public sector is their own property and funded by them.

Second, the struggle at general elections is not against the candidates of the opposing party but between the candidates of the same party. For instance, in the case of the Labour Party, the dirty tricks department operated by currents within it or by general election candidates within the same party, would be in full swing disseminating anonymous malicious letters to diehard constituents in relation to certain candidates within the same party.

Third, clientelism, favouritism, nepotism, and cronyism are rife in both leading political parties – they are the order of the day.

Fourth, the indirect representative democratic parliamentary system ensures that the people are barely consulted during the life time of a legislature. At times, there wishes are even ignored.

Fifth, few and far between are the cases where the government consults the people via a referendum.

Sixth, when crucial matters of state that require bipartisan agreement are essential to get through the parliamentary agenda, the parties carry out consultation bipartisanly without any public participation and with no dissemination of information thereupon: discussions and decisions are taken behind closed doors and only the two political parties participate in these secret discussions.

Seventh, this corrupt system of clientelism is resorted to by both political parties in the House of Representatives and none have ever campaigned, or are seriously campaigning, to abolish it: on the contrary, both political parties adopt it unreservedly, actively cherish it willingly, sustain with all possible means its growth, thrive thereupon, and are jubilant when it spreads like wildfire.

The political parties in the House, MPs, Customer Care Units in ministries, persons of trust, receivers of director orders and government appointed consultants and advisors, and the public administration are all, to some degree, complicit in these corrupt structures of the state that place the individual interest not only before the common good of society but also to the financial detriment of state coffers.

The only way out of this impasse is through introducing more constitutional mechanisms of accountability such as a recall of MPs, allowing for a public action against state institutions without any procedural hurdles, and giving more rights to citizens in the governance of the state. It also requires the constitutionalization of the parliamentary group and whips and ensuring that the role of the political party in decision making in the public interest is as minute as possible with more power assigned to the people rather than to the oligarchy that represents them.

As a matter of fact, the political party is superior to the Constitution not vice-versa and that is the main difficulty where the rule of law and democracy are concerned. Decisions are not taken by constitutional organs but by the extra-constitutional political parties that are not transparent and accountable through the Constitution.

 

Kevin Aquilina is Professor of Law at the Faculty of Laws, University of Malta

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