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Harry Vassallo | Wednesday, 18 March 2009

If it works don’t fix it

A Labour stalwart of the old school, bearing the lifelong scars of his youthful graduation to suldat tal-azzar, once took me aside for a tête à tête on politics.
Among the many gems of knowledge he laid at my feet was one of exceptional brilliance.
“What is a political party?” he asked. Before I could come up with something appropriate he provided the answer: “A group of persons who contest an election together,” he said leaving the announcement to act as his salutation.
Having spent the previous few minutes telling me how his career had suffered because he had earned himself a criminal record in the political protests of the 1950s, his laconic declaration said it all. His Labour Party lacked a soul he could recognise, an ideology, a reason for being and for bringing together a group of people in a common mission... other than the bald project of ousting the incumbents and occupying the corridors of power instead of them.
He would still vote Labour. It was too late to change. There was the matter of human bonds made along the years. His very identity was inextricably linked to the party even, if only the forms and appearances remained.
It was around the time that the MLP had lost the 1998 election, shortly after winning the one in 1996 by its highly publicised attack on VAT and its subliminal attack on Income Tax. Once in office the hikes in water tariffs had been just the cherry on the cake for an old man with more than just the rudiments of social justice as part of his basic values. His party was a gutted fish, an empty eggshell, and he knew it.
My guess is that he is not alone. Despite all the noise and hysteria at election time it is not only those who think politics or who have participated actively in politics for years who are aware of the emptiness. Unlike the old timers, the new generations feel no bitterness, the emptiness is taken for granted. For them it is the way it has always been. Politics is a sort of clan warfare with all the arbitrariness of birth and football allegiances. The absence of persuasive argument or a convincing thread limiting and informing the actions of political figures grouped under one banner or another only serves to underscore the blindness of the their faith, the true fanaticism which fires them. Consistency with an identifiable political philosophy is dispensed with. Coherence in thought, word and deed is not a requirement: any contradiction can be digested. It has all been reduced to one virtue, loyalty. When the object is power for its own sake, it is really very, very simple for everybody. I side with Inter and you side with Manchester, and that’s that.
Sixteen long years in office rotted the MLP from the inside. In many ways it was a disaster from which the party has not been able to recover, but it did not affect them alone. The PN is effectively the only other pea in our political pod. The PN-MLP symbiosis is closer, more intimate and far more profound than many of us suspect.
Born as an anti-colonialist party, the PN had fulfilled its mission on achieving Independence in 1964 and had to reinvent itself, this time as the natural counterpart to the MLP. It is everything the MLP is not. Together they are the Ying and Yang of our little universe.
Both firmly grounded in the Catholic culture of their electorate. They each provide one, true, unholy and political creed that explains all existence to their faithful encompassing all possible phenomena natural and artificial. The PN in particular has developed this total answer stance to the heights of paroxysm. While the new PL dithers between denying and admitting the existence of its many factions, adding to the pain whenever reality intrudes on the myth of unity, the PN is everything and its opposite at once.
As we head for the European elections, Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas directly contradicts the Minister of Finance Tonio Fenech, insisting that the PN government should refund the €50 million it should never have exacted in VAT. Alan Deidun takes to heart the ‘Gozo eco-island’ campaign, borrowed from Alternattiva Demokratika by the PN, and asks us to believe that his efforts alone will prevent the Hondoq ir-Rummien yacht marina project so dear to the PN and the PL.
Dissident political figures are useful: they ensure that those among the party faithful shocked and estranged by the party in government are given solace by someone bearing the party emblem. That way they do not stray too far. The system had been perfected by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in his opposition to various projects championed by his own government. It all makes the party a universe, allowing conflicts to be resolved in-house, and the electoral result remaining unaffected.
Perhaps the ultimate exercise in the exploitation of contradiction was carried out just prior to the 2003 referendum when the PN attempted to exclude from the vote all senior citizens, since studies had shown that this venerable cohort was the most eurosceptic of all. It did not matter a jot that some of these people had backed the PN since its infancy. It was only after the stunt raised an uproar, that the party’s objections with the Electoral Commission were withdrawn. It was only then that the virtuoso performance was executed: the PN claimed and received the approval of its supporters for making a U-turn. Only the PN could pull that one off.
Consistency and coherence in dominant party politics is not a mandatory requirement. The masses do not insist upon it. The parties can afford to neglect it thereby achieving extraordinary political exploits because much more has become possible in their art form. They have no incentive whatsoever to reverse the trend. It works for them and they would be crazy to fix it.


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