Partisan politics have become increasingly problematic. The latest charade at the end of the Junior College Student Council elections have made it painfully obvious how party politics have infiltrated our institutions much to the detriment of the functioning of those same institutions. Let us be honest about this and admit that this is not the result of current policies, but a systematic erosion of a system that had already accommodated political patronage when it was set up.
17 years ago, when I myself was a student at Junior College, the same political divisions existed, albeit with one key difference. We never resorted to hooliganism to celebrate or taunt political rivals. What happened at Junior College last week was just a symptom of just how deep the rot is. What we are facing is far worse than a political crisis; it is the moral bankruptcy of a nation.
Partisan politics are responsible for our culture of clientelism and nepotism. It is a system that by it’s very nature, built on party loyalties, will condone corruption at all levels for the sake of party interests: the end always justifies the means. Sifting through the reprimands and condemnations of recent happenings issued by political entities and individuals, it is hard not to be appalled by the sheer callousness of tone. No political party will condemn too harshly or push for any form of disciplinary action because someone from one of those parties will at some point do the same, and when that happens that person will need party protection. Indeed the whole Junior College incident has already been swept under the carpet by both parties.
This situation is sometimes referred to, erroneously in my opinion, as Malta’s tribalism, but tribalism is fundamentally different to clientelism. In a tribe every individual shoulders responsibilities, and the rules of that community are strictly adhered to. In a tribe, the common good comes before personal gain. Does it work? Well, several communities around the globe have survived perfectly well into the 21st century with that system. The discussion on whether it is a good system is another matter.
Clientelism is different. In clientelism loyalties are bought and sold; you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours – and if it profits me personally I will also stab you in the back while doing so. Elections in Malta are not won out of tribal loyalties but out of sheer business transactions. PL’s last two elections were won simply by offering floaters and opportunists and disgruntled Nationalists all sorts of remunerations: land, permits, business deals, positions of power, jobs, immunity, and more besides.
There is a lot of talk about constitutional reform – something which on principle is much needed, but so far no-one has come up with a real solution. As Judge Giovanni Bonello has made so painfully clear, the proposed reform won’t work. Both parties form part of the same system based on clientelism, so what good can come out of patching up a flawed system? The solution must lie elsewhere.
We need to get rid of political parties.
Carlo Levi in his book Christ Stopped at Eboli has a wonderful passage about political ideologies: fascism, nazism, communism, socialism…they are all one and the same. We are brought up to choose some abstract political ideology that demands loyalty to a set of ideas rather than to a community. Politics is no longer at the service of communities, but the other way round.
Let us take a local example. In 1993 the Local Councils Act was passed by the Nationalists then in power. It was hailed as an important step towards a broader democracy with a decentralisation of power from central government and empowering communities. The result is a political breeding ground for the bigger parties, and a spectacular squandering of public funds on inane binge-eating festivals like the infamous Festa tal-Banana (Ħal Qormi) and Festa taċ-Ċikkulata (il-Ħamrun). The councillors who actually work for the benefit of the community that elected them are few and ineffective in a system that favours party loyalty even at a community level.
So imagine reversing that situation, and having by law a system that eliminates political parties from Local Councils all together. Candidates would all have to be independent, and must not be members of any political party, nor can they receive funds from political parties for their electoral work. Now extend that to the entire political system: a Parliament made up of representatives of communities rather than political parties. And you can still have a Cabinet – a technocratic government where Ministries are given on the basis of competence not party loyalty.
Such a system would reduce clientelism but it must have several other safeguards in place, including an independent judiciary and police force where no appointment is made by an individual or select group of individuals. But there is also another safeguard that can be reintroduced, and that is bicameralism (reintroduced because Malta did have a Senate from 1921 till 1933), and while Parliament represents communities bound geographically (i.e. towns and villages) the Senate could represent communities bound by common interests (lawyers, doctors, academics, etc).
There are many models that can be adopted, but unless we acknowledge the root of the problem, i.e. partisan politics, and act on that problem, we will remain stuck in our sorry predicament. Even though PL would like us to believe that this is ‘the best of times’ and PN wants us to believe that this is ‘the worst of times’, we have to acknowledge that whatever ‘time’ this is – it is at an end. We need to start afresh by reminding us what politics is really about: living together and not selling each other out.