Reactions to the by now infamous “she dished out oranges in bags to old people” police report have been mixed. The episode wasn’t helped by some headlines written by people who judged the initiative as trivial and a good opportunity to poke fun at the Repubblika activists who, annoyingly, are too often right and rarely give opportunity for a bit of ridicule. This, some editors thought, was such an opportunity.
Let’s put this in context.
A few days earlier, Repubblika published a detailed paper about the elimination of corruption from general elections. Monitoring elections from the perspective of rule of law civil society organisations is as ordinary in other democracies as cheese on pie. Are civil society organisations normally chasing the donation of oranges? In a manner of speaking, yes.
Vote-buying is an obvious target of campaigners because it is a fairly obvious way politicians undermine the democratic process by unfairly mobilising resources and by giving voters who aren’t otherwise bothered a “reason” to choose them over others.
Rosianne Cutajar yesterday said we were “insulting the intelligence” of the people she gave oranges to by presuming they could be persuaded to vote for her merely on the basis of the gift she gave them. We make no assumptions about the people who got the oranges. We do, however make assumptions about the reasons she had for giving them out.
Was Rosianne Cutajar concerned about Vitamin C depletion in their diet? Was she making up for a blight and a biblical scarcity of oranges? No. She was giving them oranges because she wanted them to like her and she wanted them to like her because they cast their vote in the district she contests.
I also would like to think that most people would not be swayed on who to vote for on the basis of a gift of oranges. But Rosianne Cutajar makes the opposite assumption. She is the one insulting the intelligence of the unimpressed. It’s a small price to pay (given they weren’t going to vote for her anyway) to win the votes of the ones with no intelligence to insult that will indeed choose their candidate on the back of a vague reason they remember them for. That vague reason could very well be a bag of oranges.
Rosianne Cutajar is not the only one doing it. That doesn’t make it right.
As Daphne Caruana Galizia had reported on the eve of the 2017 election something of a race to the bottom was going on in the 4th district as Chris Fearne and Konrad Mizzi competed for votes by competing with the quality of goodies they were serving out to their constituents.
It is just as it sounds, the picture of a white saviour in a lost African village in the middle of a drought, starved children exploited for publicity and self-promotion by some actor at a low point in their career.
Except this is l-aqwa żmien and those people should not need free food. They probably don’t. Many of them are as unimpressed as you and I are but politely go along with it. And some, surely the politicians must believe, will indeed choose their candidate on the basis of the freebies they give them.
This, it should be obvious, is in earnest of greater gifts. A politician who dishes out oranges, wine or hot food is making a tacit promise of a cornucopia of unspecified bounty if they’re elected. The bag of oranges is a deposit in a promise of institutionalised clientelism, of a corrupt relationship between voter and their politician. That is why the giving of food and drink in the hope of electoral support is defined as a corrupt practice in the law.
If we don’t have the will to stop the trivial, how do we fight the really serious? If we think it is fine for politicians to ignore laws they themselves write when giving people small gifts, how dare we complain when politicians ignore the same laws to give people huge ones?
Rosianne Cutajar and all the others did not fear exposure when they advertised on Facebook the gifts of food and drink they had dished out to their constituents. They’re a bit more circumspect when they promise (or arrange for) someone a public sector job, a contract, or a development permit. We know this happens. We know it is the rot that is supposed to prop up our so-called democracy. And we do nothing about it.
Well, promises of gifts by politicians are proscribed by the same law that forbids the giving of food and drink in exchange of votes. It is a corrupt practice. But the giving of food and drinks is done without restraint and without embarrassment, without even the attempt to conceal it.
This is systematic across both political parties. Rosianne Cutajar happened to be the first one to go to town with her gift-giving right after Repubblika published its paper. But politicians from either side of the divide do this. It is the ‘system’. If they can afford it they give out free food and drink at parties, if not door to door. For some voters this is expected treatment. Be that as it may, it is illegal treatment. It should stop.
Some, expressing surprise, that there is a law against giving out free food to attract voter support, pointed out the law is ridiculous. I’m all for ignoring laws that are ridiculous. But that principle applies only to people without the power to change those laws. Politicians, Parliamentarians, simply do not have that excuse. They write the ruddy things.
If the legal principle that food and drink should not be a currency for votes is so absurd, why don’t they abolish it? I’d like to see them stand up in Parliament to defend the idea that it is ok for politicians to compete for votes not with argument, policy and record, but with oranges, wine and spring rolls.
If Repubblika could provide the police with evidence of an unlawful abuse of incumbency by a politician who promised to procure or procured some form of reward that is considerably more valuable than three oranges in a bag in exchange for a voter’s support, we’d happily do it. The more serious the better.
Cynical editors poking fun at us with their headlines for making a fuss about some oranges should be reminded that we went to the police over the murder by neglect of 12 migrants at sea. We went to the magistrates over corruption in the hospitals’ tender. We went to magistrates over the Panama Papers. We went to the European Court of Justice over cronyism in the appointment of judges.
We know what’s important and we pursue it with dogged determination.
Oranges are not in and of themselves a large bribe. But the rules of the market apply to corruption as well. The price of an item that is exchanged is not determined by its objective attributes but by the value a willing buyer and a willing seller agree to give it.
We do not agree that a vote, freely cast by a citizen, is worth 3 oranges but clearly we have politicians who think it is and who think there are voters who agree.
For anyone who cares for their democracy, and for the value that they give to their own vote, that is just unacceptable. We have laws to fight just that sort of corruption. We have institutions that are paid to enforce those laws.
Let’s see them look alive.