News | Sunday, 21 June 2009
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The autumn of the greens

JAMES DEBONO, a former Graffitti and Alternattiva Demokratika activist, looks at how AD was central to Gonzi’s greening in 2008 and whether the implosion of the green vote will lead to the decline of the wider green movement.

It came straight out of the starkly polarised political landscape of the 1980s. Bridging the environmentalist movement led by Zghazagh ghall-Ambjent’s hardy members, with civil rights group Tan-Numri, Alternattiva Demokratika’s founders were members of a battered civil society who had already stood up to be counted.
Activists like Julian Manduca, Saviour Balzan and Harry Vassallo had felt the brunt of state violence in a 1984 protest against Labour minister Lorry Sant’s building schemes, that was quashed at the violent hands of party thugs. A young lawyer, Wenzu Mintoff, then a member of the young socialist league and nephew of Dom Mintoff was a lone voice who stood up to condemn the attacks. Elected a Labour MP in 1987, he was soon to defect to the new political movement.
AD certainly did not enjoy the support of mainstream environmental movements. Zghazagh ghall-Ambjent had not warmed up to the new PN government of 1987, as other environmentalists did, starting with immediate opposition to the new Delimara power station and the government’s decision to allow nuclear military ships inside Maltese ports in 1988. While Zghazagh Ghall-Ambjent’s radical activists were inspired by the green parties in Germany and other advanced European countries, NGOs like Din l-Art Helwa and the Society for the Study and Conservation of Nature (the forerunner of Nature Trust), were mainly composed of academics or members of the establishment who leaned towards the Nationalist Party.
With Mintoff’s resignation from Labour, and that of MLP president Toni Abela, AD received its left-wing identity, further amplifying the distrust of the mainstream NGOs. Prior to the 1992 election, it enjoyed the media limelight: spectacular actions against the privatisation of the coastline through beach concessions, often ended up with the arrest of AD officials.
Then it managed a promising result in the 1992 general elections, with 4,200 votes (1.7%) going to the three-year-old party. But in the next five years, neither AD, nor the environmental movement, would see any general growth.

Decline in the 1990s
AD’s vicissitudes certainly contrasted with those of the hunting lobby, who enjoyed clear favour with the main parties in the 1990s. Junior minister Stanley Zammit’s attempt to “green” the PN from within, by trying – unsuccessfully – to push through stricter hunting regulations in the early 1990s, ended in his unceremonious dumping before the election.
In 1996, instead of increasing its vote as many expected, AD saw its vote share decline to 1.4% in the 1996 general election, amid a seismic 17,000 vote swing to Labour under its new leader Alfred Sant, who managed to build “a coalition of the disgruntled”, which also included the hunting lobby.
Sant’s alliance with hunters had underlined the weakness of the environmental lobby, as it confirmed the greater political clout hunters enjoyed.
In 1998 AD re-invented itself with a new name – Alleanza Gustizzja Socjali – in a bid to appeal to the “old left” which no longer felt represented by Sant’s New Labour. The repackaging had disastrous consequences. A small marginal increase in AD’s votes in the southern, second district was corresponded by a decline in support in the northern localities, which brought down the overall percentage to 1.2%.
Again, the 1998 elections confirmed the strength of the hunting lobby, which this time round also managed to commit the PN with another pre-electoral agreement, similar to that signed with Labour before the 1996 election.
Many already doubted then if AD would even survive after Wenzu Mintoff left to rejoin the Labour Party. It was AD’s decision to support EU membership, following the election of Harry Vassallo as chairperson, that managed to make the party relevant once more.
European rebirth
AD’s active support for EU membership, highlighting quality of life issues like air quality, sewage treatment and landfills, became appealing to middle class voters who were increasingly disenchanted by the shabbiness of the country but who looked to the EU as their saviour.
Arnold Cassola’s election as general secretary of the European Greens in 1998 increased the clout of the Maltese greens, who were the first to raise these issues in the European Parliament through their green colleagues. AD started enjoying greater visibility on the media during the referendum campaign and it was allowed to participate in a series of three-party debates organised by the Broadcasting Authority.
Its growing strength was also confirmed in local council elections that were held concurrently with the referendum in which three green councillors were elected in Lija, Sliema and Birkirkara. For the first time in its history, AD had direct talks with Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami on a possible pro-EU electoral alliance.
But while the PN offered AD the post of Speaker of the House in return for not contesting, AD stubbornly insisted on a coalition between the two parties. AD ended up contesting the election, even urging voters to give it their second preference – a strategy that was publicly rebuked by Eddie Fenech Adami during the final PN rally at the St Andrew’s Luxol football ground. It led to a further decimation in AD’s vote, down to a dismal 0.7% result.
But despite the flocking of AD voters to the PN in 2003, in a bid to secure a pro-EU vote, the green party had retained the good will of the electorate. In 2004, in the first European Parliament elections for Malta, Arnold Cassola garnered 23,000 votes.

Despite its sixth placing in the MEP elections, AD failed to capitalise on its success. It still lacked the necessary resources to build the structures needed to represent its new voters, even if it kept claiming that it represented 9% of the electorate right up to the 2008 election, despite all surveys were showing otherwise.
AD’s strategy to focus its limited energies on collecting signatures for a referendum to change rent laws failed miserably, as the required number of signatures was never collected.
Moreover, AD had to contend with the rise of a new civil society movement that was composed of pale-blue voters who took to the streets in protest against the extension of the building zones. Cassola’s success in 2004 may well have been the first manifestation of the emergence of an angry middle class, which expected EU membership to improve their quality of life, but which instead found themselves living at the mercy of cranes and arrogant contractors.
So it was with Astrid Vella’s new lobby Flimkien Ghall-Ambjent Ahjar that AD suddenly saw its initiative being taken up. As FAA grew to prominence, AD retreated to its small party existence after their ephemeral 2004 result.
And like the more established environmental NGOs, FAA was jealous of its political independence and steered clear of any association with AD, even if it shared most of its battles with the party. AD was repeatedly excluded from ad hoc coalitions against developments ranging from the Xaghra l-Hamra golf course to the proposed Ghadira road.
Although green NGOs took most of the glory for the PN’s U-turns on green issues, it is difficult to image the PN government turning green in the absence of the latent electoral threat posed by Alternattiva Demokratika. The first act of redemption was the re-designation of Xaghra l-Hamra as a national park, after a disastrous attempt to turn the area into golf course. This was followed by MEPA’s decision to revoke a controversial permit for the development of villas on the Ulysses Lodge site overlooking Ramla Bay in Gozo.
The last act in the PN’s transfiguration into a ‘green’ party was Gonzi’s promise to address the country’s environmental deficit by taking over MEPA – a promise which has yet to be honoured – while at the same time excluding a coalition with AD. Little did the green electorate know at the time, that a few weeks before the same election Gonzi had secretly promised the Armier boathouse squatters that none of their illegal shacks would be demolished.
The strategy of doing away with the Greens by emulating their ideas worked, to the extent that Greens received another electoral drubbing, garnering only 1.3% of the vote.
The PN, upon re-election, once again sent mixed messages on the environment to the green electorate. Despite the promise of reform, MEPA continued to approve controversial developments like Fort Cambridge in Tigné, a 12-storey development in Mistra, residential units in a valley in Mosta and finally an ODZ development in Bahrija belonging to party president Victor Scerri.

Coming to terms with 2009
After 2008, Harry Vassallo resigned. His successor, Arnold Cassola, had just returned from a two-year stint as an Italian parliamentarian after being elected from an all-European list for Romano Prodi’s party. Hoping to capitalise on the 2004 success, Cassola was again AD’s candidate for the 2009 MEP elections.
This time around, Cassola failed to translate concern about the environment into votes. One major problem was that recession and irregular immigration had eclipsed quality of life issues in this election. Surveys showed the environment dropping in the list of voters’ concerns in comparison to immigration and the energy tariffs.
Likewise, the token green candidates in the PN and the Labour party failed to achieve any success. Alan Deidun, whose Sunday Times column had documented MEPA’s pro-development bias, ended up getting fewer votes than Cassola. Steve Borg, who had Nature Trust’s president’s endorsement, only managed 1,187 votes.
Their collective failure in these elections contrasts sharply with the apparent re-emergence of the hunting lobby as a political force to be reckoned with. Both party leaders acknowledged holding secret meetings with hunters during the campaign. But neither have the power to single-handedly restore spring hunting, currently the object of legal proceedings in the European Court of Justice.
As a result of these elections, the Greens emerged weaker both as an autonomous political force and as a voice within the two major parties.
The final blow came with Michael Briguglio’s failure to get re-elected as Sliema councillor. Nowhere else was AD more in synch with middle-class concerns on the impact of reckless construction than in Sliema, by raising the concerns of both residents and the FAA in the local council agenda.
And nowhere else did an AD representative work harder to translate words into practical actions, by pushing the council to oppose projects like the Qui-Si-Sana car park and the Fort Cambridge development.
On the contrary, Lija’s mayor Ian Castaldi Paris – known for his opposition to the development next to the Belvedere Tower – doubled his vote; a possible indication that the PN might have been perceived as a more environmentally conscious party.
NGOs like FAA, who kept their distance from the political fray during the elections, may feel vindicated for not associating their name with a lost cause. But if AD were to disappear, the environmentalist movement might well discover that it has lost the most powerful weapon in its arsenal: the latent threat of taking votes from the established parties.
And the two big parties might well return to the days when contractors and hunters ruled the roost without fearing a loss of votes to the Green Party.


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