The following was sent in by someone known to me but who must remain anonymous because of their line of work. It is an interesting comparative analysis with some recommendations on what alternative methods could be useful in responding to the popularity of the cult of our own strong man:
Four years ago, I was disappointed after the PN’s huge defeat and was afraid about the risk of Joseph Muscat ruining the economy of Malta. Most people laughed and still do. They thought it inconceivable and still do because our economy seems to be doing fine.
I was not particularly prescient but being a close follower of Italian politics I had already seen this movie starring Silvio Berlusconi who led the Italian government as prime minister for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011. I knew how it could unfold.
Now that Joseph Muscat has been re-elected the Berlusconi parallel could offer an important lesson in how to avoid transforming Muscat’s double victory into a 25 years affair.
Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. Like Daphne Caruana Galizia it was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Muscat is no different.
We saw this dynamic as well during the American presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her. The news media was so intent on ridiculing Mr. Trump’s behavior that it ended up providing him with free advertising.
Unfortunately, the dynamic has not ended with the election. Shortly after Mr. Trump gave his acceptance speech, protests sprang up all over America. What are these people protesting against? Whether we like it or not, Mr. Trump won legitimately. Denying that only feeds the perception that there are “legitimate” candidates and “illegitimate” ones, and a small elite decides which is which. If that’s true, elections are just a beauty contest among candidates blessed by the Guardian Council of clerics, just like in Iran.
These protests are also counterproductive. There will be plenty of reasons to complain during the Trump presidency, when really awful decisions are made. Why complain now, when no decision has been made? It delegitimizes the future protests and exposes the bias of the opposition.
Back to Berlusconi, the Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only one man in Italy has won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi. (Matteo Renzi defeated him as well butt only in a 2014 European election). Prodi had treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. He focused on the issues, not on his character or as has happened here on Michelle’s Muscat fashion escapades. Moreover Prodi was seen as an outsiders and not a member of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.
The Nationalist Party should learn this lesson.
Just like the United States an opposition focused on personality would crown Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste. It would also weaken the opposition voice on the issues, where it is important to conduct a battle of principles.
Nationalists should strive to show that Labour’s economic recipe based on passport selling and skyscrapers speculation is based on a bubble once trust in our institutions gets bust. Added to this the flow into Malta of corruption is also a short-lived blessing. Admittedly PN did try to press this point telling on how the Financial Services and Igaming industries were feeling the heat from foreign investors because Malta’s reputation was being eroded.
Rumours circulate that Maltese banks are having serious difficulties in correspondence banking. Indeed once trust is lost our bubble economy will burst and this is will be the fault of Labour. Unfortunately the PN failed to send this message and Muscat skillfully argued that it was motivated by jealousy of Busuttil and his friends in Europe seeing Malta’s economic success story.
Finally, the Nationalists should find a credible candidate among young leaders, one outside the party’s Brahmins.