It might be an urban legend but it still ranks among one of my favourite political anecdotes of all time and there’s a faint ring of truth to it.
So the tale goes that the relatives and friends of the late ‘Guza Borg’ were promoting the cause for her beatification. As is normally the case in Malta, this involved a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between various entities, government departments and ultimately some politician. The supporters of the beatification cause made an appointment to meet the man. He kept them waiting and cancelled the first appointment. This repeated itself a couple of times. Finally the supporters staged a stake-out outside his office. Realising that he had to face the inevitable, the politician tried to escape by adopting the busy, hurried man pose and breezed out. He greeted the supporters warmly, clasping their hands in his and pulling them towards him. “We’ve come to talk to you about Guza,” someone managed to edge in amid the flurry of greetings. “Of course, of course. How is she, the dear woman? I just spoke to her last week. Selluli ghaliha, selluli!” And he marched out, leaving them all lost for words.
Maybe the details are incorrect, maybe it was another “beato” or “beata.” Perhaps it’s just an amusing story doing the rounds, but it’s also one which speaks volumes about people’s perception of politics and about where this gets them. For many Maltese, politicians are contestants in a popularity contest and not much else. In order to make headway in the popularity charts, candidates have to go through the motions, jump through all the hoops, show up at every social gathering and generally be as visible as possible. Come election day, the candidate will be duly rewarded with his place in parliamentary heaven.
It’s a cynical nation which doesn’t recognise the underlying hypocrisy of this exchange. It’s even worse when the hypocrisy is noted and considered to be inevitable. In this respect, I was dismayed to read an article in which the author lists a series of activities which candidates perform ghal ghajn in-nies, without batting a metaphorical eyelid.
David Muscat (A National Treasure, The Times 9 November) writes about candidates and says that they attend village festas, tour village clubs, knock doors, hug women at coffee mornings, hand out hampers at bazaars, are present at parish activities and make it a point to be seen in the church pjazza on Sunday.
He adds “I know an MP who attends all the funerals at the parish church of his native constituency.” Muscat attributes the necessity of these acts to an electoral system where candidates have to meet their constituents, because voters are choosing between candidates rather than between parties. I couldn’t disagree more.
Candidates act like performing seals in between election years because a large part of the electorate is obsessed with the cult of popularity and personality - a personality which is carefully cultivated by the candidate in his interaction with the public. Every time the candidate is out there pressing the flesh, flashing smiles and uncovering commemorative plaques he’s working on his popularity ratings. If he is an elected politician, he’s not doing something that is objectively useful but merely ensuring that he gets elected next time round. He is not contributing towards the greater good of society or his constituents, he’s maintaining his popular public persona. And “popular” does not necessarily mean “good” or “hard working” or “intelligent.” It simply means that the image portrayed is one which voters identify with. This is all very well and good if the only objective of the democratic process was to return the most popular boys and girls to Parliament every term, like some kind of interminable repeat of prom night. However it doesn’t leave much room for work to be done. The time MPs spend at kazini and countless baptism parties of galoppini offspring is not time spent getting in touch with the grass roots or engaging in serious debates. It’s a much baser affair – a simple barter deal. The MP pumps up his image and the galoppin gets access to someone with the ability to open doors into some perceived corridors of power.
I sometimes wonder whether things have continued in this vein for so long that they’ve become part of the collective Maltese psyche. Will the fun guy, the “nice” guy continue to be voted into office because he’s spent loads of time doing the rounds and kissing our babies, regardless of the fact that he hasn’t got a clue of how to address any serious issues and that he can’t keep any of the promises he made while pouring out the Chivas? Will popularity continue to be equated with fitness for office?
There’s been one encouraging sign which shows that things might be changing. Like David Muscat, I too know an MP who attended every single funeral in our district. He’d plod in, just late enough to be noticed and sidle out after having caught the eye of some relative, probably to attend another funeral of some poor constituent who he never knew or cared about when he was alive. I thought his behaviour was gross. He attended the funerals of people who he could not have possibly been concerned about, if not in terms of potential voter statistics. He was insincere. Last time round he didn’t make it to Parliament. His posturing proved to be his own funeral. I was glad.