A general election is near, whether it is formally announced in the coming hours or not. First of all, it’s time. 6 months short of the 5 year deadline is too late to call whatever happens now an “early” election. Secondly, the government party has been campaigning with the same frenzied appetite they displayed in the 2013 and 2017 elections. They fight like underdogs, perversely betraying a sense of entitlement to power and a panic that someone could take it away from them, certainty of victory and a catastrophic fear of possible defeat at the same time.

An end of a term is a time to look back. This second term of Labour in government fits that too often abused adjective of hyperbolic propagandists: it’s historic. They’ll still talk about our times when we’re dead.

It is incredible that the packaging the Labour Party wrapped its promises for this 5-year term was labelled ‘l-aqwa żmien’, the best of times. They’ve been anything but. The corruption scandals that were the context of the 2017 elections are still entirely outstanding in 2021. The faces of the Labour Party in the 2017 campaign – Joseph Muscat, Chris Cardona, Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri – are now in the background, somewhere between liabilities and embarrassing uncles. But they continue to lurk. The actions and decisions of the government party continue to be conditioned by their interests. Their preservation and impunity remains a priority now as much as it had been in 2017.

Through it all Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed and the country’s standing in the world crumbled like the temple of the Philistines. In 2017 Labour supporters celebrated outside Pilatus Bank. In 2021 the bank is closed, charged with money laundering, its owner found guilty of bank fraud by an American jury, acquitted on a technicality, hovering around the island to exert his revenge. Malta still sells its passports but while in 2017 it could boast – albeit disingenuously – the blessing of the EU, the scheme is now the subject of legal action in Europe and its future is dim.

Electrogas remains in the hands of the owners who benefited from, though they claim themselves ignorance of, Yorgen Fenech’s backroom deals with Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi. In 2017 the power station was a gift handed down munificently by the omniscient Konrad Mizzi. In 2021 it’s a curse.

Three formerly public hospitals are still in private ownership but that looks more precarious than ever. Since the 2017 election the owners who first bought it, sold it on. The new owners remain because the government is willing to pay them any money to avoid the embarrassment of their departure. The quality of service has barely improved in 5 years. The cost of providing it has increased exponentially.

The cost of managing covid has shot public finances, once the pride of the government, now an intractable challenge. Every threat is an opportunity. Covid has become a cover for grotesque over-spending, waste, corrupt public expenditure, populism, and blatant vote buying. The cost is charged to the public account which has a license to stutter because of covid.

This then has been the balance of the ‘best of times’. The government party promises the next five years to be even better than the best. Its budget speech has been a veritable bonanza of electoral promises that depend on the supreme confident that Malta’s economy will spin itself into unprecedented growth, that we are rapidly promoted out of grey-listing, and that the future can be built on the cloud of ungrounded optimism.

Not to be outdone, the PN opposition mirrored the government yesterday seeing their bluff and raising the bet on the back of even more mindless optimism. On the principle that fire must be fought with fire, the PN leader yesterday replied to the government’s unicorn glitter with intrepid aplomb.

If you can’t beat the populists, exceed them. On the one hand the seemingly insurmountable challenge of grey-listing can be wiped away quicker than Lent. On the other hand we’ll sail in the opposite direction of the rest of the world inviting the slave-driving Amazon, the democracy-undermining Facebook, and the world-dominating Google to move away from jurisdictions that charge them tax so they can continue to make money everywhere and pay tax nowhere.

On top of that the PN promised yesterday to enhance a regressive tax model, with people paying more and earning less tax. I know that sounds like fun. But what’s paying for the bounty of public expense? The key is attracting tax-evaders to set up some sort of home here. The model worked in the past, why can’t it in the future? Because the world has changed and we haven’t been looking.

Leaders of both parties are going to a general election knowing that the five years that follow are going to be among the toughest in our history. If this country is to flourish again we must use the next few years to clean up our act, reinvent ourselves, sort ourselves out. We need to get ready for some hard changes, some serious choices.

But no one, at least in theory, wins elections by promising tough times ahead. No one tells us that we must spend more to earn more. No one tells us that more of our children must stay in schools for longer, our business professionals must find new ways of being competitive that do not involve sheltering tax dodgers, our greedy profiteers must go to jail. No one wins an election on the back of the bad news coming before the good news.

The fact that they need to put a brave face on the ugliness and smile through the collective delusion says more about us than about them. Are we surprised that while we struggle with our conscience about voting for the less inadequate, choosing a side because it is far less prone to rot and crime rather than because we support its ideas for transformation, too many of us right now are striking their own secret bargains on the side?

Because while both political parties play at this beauty contest of fabulous hyperbole, Labour’s ministers (and there are so many of them) are promising the earth in little conversations in homes and constituency offices where no one speaks about Ali Sadr and Konrad Mizzi.

The permit, the job, and the contract are, as ever, deciding just how much better your next five years will be than the best of times in the last five. And that too, says more about us, than it does about the political leaders we choose.