MaltaToday | 9 March 2008 | The election of our malcontents

NEWS | Sunday, 09 March 2008

The election of our malcontents

Raphael Vassallo looks at a selection of special interest minority groups which might make all the difference in today’s election

Hunters and trappers
Ever since they were held responsible (among other factors) for the 1996 Labour victory and subsequent EU application freeze, Malta’s hunting and trapping population – estimated at around 12,000, minus families – has always been an electoral force to be reckoned with.
The hunters’ federation FKNK took a front-seat role in both the 1998 and 2003 elections, and by their own admission they were one of a number of troublesome segments targeted by the Nationalist pro-EU campaign. The strategy was successful in the short-term, for the hunters did not derail the European project, as many feared they might. But it now transpires that one of the more critical pre-referendum promises – that spring hunting would not be affected – was somewhat less than 100% honest.
Five years later, Malta is in court with the European Commission for allowing hunting in spring, after the “special derogation” turned out to be nothing but an observation of Malta’s right to apply for an exception under Article 9.
As a result of the court proceedings, the dates for this year’s season have not yet been announced: a fact which has already prompted two public meetings by the FKNK, and which can be taken as a sure-fire indication that the lobby group will not be backing the political party which it now claims had lied to them outright.
But as the PN’s campaign slogan reminds us all, “everything is possible”. As things stand, the strength of the hunters’ lobby has only been tested once, when FKNK secretary contested the 2004 MEP elections. If his dismal 2004 performance is repeated in today’s vote count, the entire hunting blackmail factor may well prove to be something of a paper tiger after all.

Divorce dissidents
Divorce has been a divisive political issue in this country since the distant 1950s, when Archbishop Michael Gonzi – uncle to Lawrence – identified Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s proposed marriage reforms as a major threat to the Church’s hitherto unchallenged hegemony.
The great religious wars of the 1960s served to dramatically polarise the country, with effects that can still be felt half a century later. And while Mintoff ultimately emerged victorious, and introduced Civil Marriage in 1976, “what God hath joined together” remains indissoluble by a Maltese court to this day.
Matters have since been complicated by the infamous Church-State agreement of 1994, whereby Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami ceded jurisdiction over Maltese marriage law to the Holy See. But even if neither of the larger parties now proposes divorce legislation, the issue remains a sore point in a country where the rate of marital breakdown has risen to almost one in two. Surveys also suggest that an analogous statistic – roughly 50% - now actively favour the introduction of divorce. But with the exception of pro-divorce AD, the remaining political parties have either skirted the issue completely, or – in the case of AN – have dug their heels in dogged Catholic resistance.
The Nationalist Party has also maintained a decidedly anti-divorce stance, although its recent rhetoric has come round to acknowledging the reality of cohabiting couples (despite never having kept its own 1998 promise to regularise their position at law).
Of the two political giants, Labour remains the closest to a pro-divorce policy, having set up the short-lived Family Commission during its equally short-lived government in 1997.

Green guerrillas
Elections 2008 have seen an undeniable shift in the political landscape, with both major parties – PN and MLP – making decisive and sometimes desperate overtures to regain the eternally discontented Green vote.
This time last year, MaltaToday identified the “Swieqi subversive” – the 30+, middle-income property-owner whose aspirations include a greater national commitment to the environment – as a major thorn in the Nationalist Party’s side. Certainly, the Gonzi administration did not help its cause with these voters by extending the development boundaries in 2005; still less by toying with the potentially catastrophic idea of a golf course at ix-Xaghra l-Hamra, limits of Manikata.
But two years later, the balance has clearly tilted in favour of the Greens, as can be attested by a number of environmental pledges in both larger parties’ manifestos. The PN now promises a much-needed overhaul of MEPA, to increase Malta’s use of renewable sources of energy, and to effectively tackle the burgeoning waste problem.
Ironically, the Labour Party is likely to aid the PN’s cause by insisting on two stand-alone golf courses and a yacht marina in Gozo, as well as “fast-tracking” of mega-projects by MEPA. But Labour has also promised a nationwide waste separation programme of its own, as well as its own MEPA reform, among other environmentally-conscious initiatives.
But despite this “greening” of the established parties, the Swieqi subversive remains a cause for intense concern at Herbert Ganado Street, Pietà. A cursory glance at the electoral districts with the highest number of uncollected voting documents – the 10th and the 12th – suggests that overdevelopment remains a sore point for many voters from the Sliema/St Julian’s and St Paul’s Bay/Bugibba areas.
Likewise, the all-out war between the PN and Alternattiva Demokratika in the 10th district suggests that the Nationalists still view the Greens as a threat, in what was once their uncontested stronghold.
The extent of the Green guerrillas’ revolt will most likely be made manifest at some point this afternoon.

Prayer group ‘protestants’
The past year has witnessed a veritable reassertion of the Religious Right, in part sparked off by the appointment of a new Archbishop in January 2007, followed by the canonisation of Malta’s first ever saint in June. Not all this grouping’s adherents are standard Roman Catholics: Evangelical Christians and other minority denominations also swell the ranks of a lobby group which views the so-called “secularisation” of Malta with rising trepidation.
On one level, the emergence of the (now-defunct) Alleanza Nazzjonali Repubblikana in 2005 may be construed as a symptom of the growing demand for a more Christian way of doing politics. Founding member Philip Beattie is today a candidate with Dr Josie Muscat’s Azzjoni Nazzjonali, which is contesting this election on a hybrid platform of traditional Christian values, anti-immigration sentiment and business-friendly economic liberalism.
But perhaps the clearest indication of a deeper political influence was the campaign, launched by the Gift of Life Foundation in 2005, to entrench a ban on abortion in the Constitution. The initiative enjoys the full support of Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Justice Minister Tonio Borg and the President of Republic Eddie Fenech Adami, among other heavyweights.
Recently, a petition to this effect, numbering 36,000 signatures, was presented to parliament by MPs Tonio Borg, Franco Galea and Michael Axiak (PN) and Anglu Farrugia (MLP). And although GoL temporarily suspended its campaign in view of the election, a number of questions about the Constitutional amendment found their way into press conferences addressed by Labour leader Alfred Sant – who, after AD’s Harry Vassallo, was the clear target of a campaign aimed at “outing” a largely imaginary pro-choice minority.
On Thursday, Gift of Life issued a press release expressing “perplexity” at Labour leader Alfred Sant’s failure to wholeheartedly endorse its campaign. And on Friday, the same foundation urged its sympathisers to observe a “day of fasting and prayer for Malta’s future and the elections”.

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