David Friggieri | Sunday, 31 May 2009
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Anche la democrazia può fare schifo

All last week I was staying in Minsk, the capital of the country which has been billed Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’. In many, many ways it strongly felt like Paradise Lost. True, even English language newspaper Belarus Today proved impossible to track down so we had to make do with The Minsk Times and its stories of potassium mines, investment by Greek firms and, on the front page, Eurovision winner Alexander Rybak who sang for Norway but was born in Belarus.
Minsk is wide boulevards, a lot of sky, people who actually smile at you in real life (as opposed to out of some advert in a third rate glossy magazine), gentle manners, clubs where people dance wildly, a wonderful absence of billboards and a beautifully calm pace of life. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Tickets for Nabucco at the majestic National Theatre, Opera and Ballet Academy set us back the princely sum of €2. People we met claimed that in many ways they felt free. But, of course, Belarus is far from being a democracy.
On our last day there, I decided to linger a while in the business centre of the Minsk Hotel to see how things were evolving in Europe’s smallest democracy which was revving up to elect the representatives it would dispatch to the world’s largest parliament. Two weeks before E-Day, blogger Jacques Zammit was employing the expressive Italian word schifo to describe how he felt about progress on the Maltese democratic front.
With Lukashenko’s capital as a backdrop, I decided to decipher why people might feel nauseous about the politics of a country the size of an ancient Greek city-state.
These are my conclusions, for what they’re worth.

1) Fear and Loathing in La Valletta. Perhaps the most off-putting aspect of democracy à la maltaise is that it is such a damn hysterical affair. And quite frankly, about what exactly? The Europe referendum in 2003 was a big deal, in a historical kind of way. But what about all the other contests? Do we need to demonise the opponent? Are horror movie billboards really a great idea? The impression you get is that Maltese elections are a mad, bad rush for those crucial 5,000 votes in which everything else (logic, decency, honesty, respect for people’s intelligence and consistency are jettisoned at will). Does politics give people the adrenaline rush they don’t get from that monotonous Sunday drive around the island? If we start to regard Maltese politics as our main source of entertainment, it would go a long way to explain why everything seems to be acceptable these days. Paris Hilton in Shocking Sex Tapes, roll over.

2) Platform. One candidate spelt it out very frankly. Paraphrasing, the line goes: “If you’re serious about getting elected, you’re advised to hitch a ride on one of the two aircraft carriers.” Pragmatism or sheer opportunism? The jury seems to be out on that one but accusations of “wicc tost”, “lanqas jisthu” and “inconsistency” have underpinned a considerable chunk of this campaign. Would I be too harsh if I were to say that decency has been a major victim over the past few months?

3) Ideas are like Rabbits. Not in the sense that they copulate and breed fast. That might be a good thing. No, in the sense that candidates in this election have pulled ideas out of their hats like there was no tomorrow. Divorce, green schemes, hospital waiting lists, tax on cars, you name it. It’s a cacophonic proliferation of ‘issues’ in this day and age of progressive politics. A sort of political ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ charade in which rival candidates vie to come up with the snazziest, most feel-good, most ‘modern’ proposal. Anything for a bit of limelight. You ended up wondering which candidates would offer to perform fellatio on folks who voted for them, as one Belgian candidate notoriously promised to do in 2004.

4) An unacknowledged gap between the very good and the outright hopeless. You know the line about democracy being the worst system apart from all the rest. But surely there must be something perverse about a voting public which still stubbornly refuses to clearly acknowledge the difference between the very good and the outright hopeless, allowing pique and block-headed tribalism to inform its choices. This state of affairs has allowed the loudest charlatans to be put on a par with competent candidates and, worse, has convinced many, many worthy people that they should avoid politics like the plague. The Italians had their veline scandal, Malta has its motley crew of ultra-rabid party ‘journalists’ metamorphosing overnight into politicians who expect tonnes of respect across the board. First they perverted the meaning of journalism, now they want your vote fl-interess nazzjonali. Pull the other one, will you.

5) Vulgarity. Milan Kundera thought that totalitarian systems had a propensity to be kitsch. It would be interesting to know what he would make of our hyper-politicised democracy, especially in this day and age of the political You Tube video. By the way, why on earth do politicians think that being filmed squatting in front of some poor toddler will earn them my vote? It’s even more off-putting than those photos of handshakes with The Pope.

6) Rainbow Politics. It’s the brand new dawn of Maltese politics. Political parties are everything and nothing: simultaneously ultra-conservative and liberal; throwbacks to the ugly past and progressive; spouting snazzy green technologies but bankrolled by big contractors; Eurosceptic and Europhile. Rainbow Politics is one way of describing it. Catch-All Hodge-Podge is another.

7) The reluctance to be honest about fundamentals. The Labour Party should admit that it was awfully wrong about Europe. Period. The Nationalist Party should clearly and cogently explain its take on Church-State relations. Period.

8) We’re all Obama now. In its ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ column, now defunct Brussels satirical rag The Sprout would lampoon MEPs when it felt they had outgrown their boots. One of our MEPs wasn’t spared the treatment. Don’t get me wrong. Well-prepared, technically competent, hard-working MEPs can do a lot of good both for the country they hail from and – a nod here to Fr Peter – for the greater European cause. But please, please, please put an end to this absolutely nauseating over the top behaviour in which people are made to feel that all that is good in life depends on electing Mrs X or Mr Y or a team from the blue platform or the red platform. In other words, tone things down a notch, will you? One of the reasons some of us voted for joining the EU was to see a gradual normalisation of the political game. We had hoped that politics would cease to dominate absolutely everything. What we got instead is even more people behaving like they’re Obama. They’re not.

9) An indecent society? Hysteria, hodge-podge politics, opportunism, vulgarity and over the top behaviour don’t constitute the ideal ingredients of a decent society. My piece of advice would be this: vote for those candidates who you feel have behaved most decently, most consistently and – this is crucial in our strange prima donna society – with a sense of humility.


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