This is a place where you come to mourn democracy. Like Orwell’s Benjamin the donkey I bray about my memory of earlier times, when I was younger and the sun shone brighter, though it got less hot. When I speak of political violence I was vaguely aware of in my childhood and of the EU-membership political battle in my youth, I could be speaking to my children about an affair with Cleopatra or a battle wound at Waterloo.
I remember the institution of the ombudsman being set up in the mid-1990s. I saw the government of the time swearing in and setting up an office whose job it was to annoy them and force them to respond to their criticism in public. Robert Abela yesterday recalled how Eddie Fenech Adami criticised decisions by the first ombudsman in parliament calling some of them unreasonable. Robert Abela pretended to be scandalised comparing favourably his behaviour with that of his predecessor twice removed. Robert Abela never criticised in Parliament decisions by the ombudsman. He ignored them. When called upon to answer by an independent institution he did not.
I remember Local Councils being set up. I was a teenager – admittedly a particularly nerdy one – when I was swept up by a simple party slogan: il-bidla tkompli, the change continues. There was a mission to take away from ministers the opportunities for clientelism. There was a mission to remove the monopoly on power on the ruling party allowing towns and cities where the party of national minority enjoys a local majority to choose mayors and councillors they liked even if they disliked the government in Valletta. I watched – and for a while I participated – as more and more powers of central government were devolved to towns and villages under the principle of subsidiarity.
Then I watched Joseph Muscat crush them, first by removing their democratic legitimacy altogether by cancelling and postponing for years their election, silencing the electorate and denying it the opportunity to make its choices. Then government starved them of money and as more councils switched to Labour as voters who would have chosen otherwise increasingly stopped seeing the point in voting for powerless councils, mayors and councillors stopped complaining that the government was killing local democracy.
This is not amarcord. Robert Abela is actively undermining democratic institutions that come from well before my personal memory. His new law to force on magistrates conducting inquiries into occupational deaths his own appointees with no security of tenure is an assault on traditions of judicial independence that are older than democracy itself.
It may not be amarcord but I still remember prime ministers who, love them or loathe them, clearly were not in the business of politics for themselves. No one ever suspected Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici of skimming off the top. Even Eddie Fenech Adami’s most virulent detractors never accused him of greed. No one ever thought Alfred Sant sought even for a moment to unlawfully enrich himself. Nor has anyone suggested that of Lawrence Gonzi.
And now, Joseph Muscat’s successor, rushes to make hay while his seat in Castille is still warm, turning properties he should not afford into cash cows as uninhabited residencies for Russian passport-buyers and a select boutique hotel for the absurdly rich. And that decadent luxury impresses nobody because it pales in comparison with Joseph Muscat’s industrial-scale corruption, the sheer arrogance of a now former prime minister who justifies on the back of his alleged skills receiving consultancy payments from people a court would accuse him of blind stupidity for allowing them to defraud the country of a chunk of the national health service.
There are so many reasons to mourn Maltese democracy.
And yet, in the scorching drought, a drop of moisture sweats through the cracks of hardened soil, and in a bright green sprout, so small it’s likely to be missed, there, stubbornly, hope germinates.
The hegemony of the Labour Party is not quite crumbling but it is definitely shaking. When Joseph Muscat was forced out in disgrace in 2019, Labour was still convinced it had been a victim of circumstances. They still thought the way Marie Louise Coleiro Preca had put it in a speech in the palace in January 2018. Everything was perfect, they thought. The ever-annoying Daphne Caruana Galizia got herself killed, but her characteristic grinchy attempt to spoil their party did not detract from their greatness. They rallied around themselves and each other, absolutely convinced in their indispensability.
It’s no longer like that. Ministers are starting to brief against Robert Abela and against each other. Rebels are starting to step out of line. Desmond Zammit Marmarà’s article in Times of Malta today is the culmination of a Damascene fall lived in slow motion. His denouncement of the national betrayal perpetrated by his former party since 2013 and his admission of how long the scales on his eyes persisted are more than a breath of fresh air. They spell the doom of the heretofore undefeatable Labour Party or at least this generation of its leaders.
What’s more, having had the courage of being the first and only open critic of his party, Desmond Zammit Marmarà has the admirable record of staying long enough for company to join him.
I am gripped by cynicism as much as the next guy when I watch Evarist “I know where the bodies are buried but I won’t tell you because I like being a minister” Bartolo leap from one head of indictment of his former party to the next. Cynically, it is reasonable to assume all he is doing is learning from the beneficiaries of the bounty of the government he was part of. Like them he may very well be bad-mouthing the Labour Party until they reward him or promote him into silence, maybe make him president after George Vella, elect him to the living tomb of a handsome pension and a couple of country villas rent free for 5 years.
Whatever his motives, his indictments are damning because they come from within. Just a year or two ago no one in the Labour Party dared voicing a dissenting opinion out loud. Dissent is now fashionable.
Consider Conrad Borg Manché the Mayor of Gżira. No longer will he accept to carry the flag of his party in his community as that party ignores him and his voters, favouring a petrol station operator over everyone else living within a mile of the doomed garden that will make way for a highway pitstop. That outright defiance would have been shocking before the last general election. Now it’s mainstream.
Who would have thought seeing Bernard Grech (and Adrian Delia) walking ahead of the crowd of protesters that thronged Republic Street last Sunday? It seemed over the past five years impossible to achieve. Certainly Bernard Grech (and Adrian Delia) thought it had been. They never dared ask people to follow them.
There is something ironic about a prostate figure, seemingly dead, flickering their eyes open after an extended period of moribund silence. Frightening and confusing, to be sure. But ironic too.
The cause of last Sunday’s march picked up the Nationalist Party’s fight against bad governance and corruption where Simon Busuttil left it all those years ago. After years of imagining the public did not care about corruption, or justice, or fairness in public service, the Nationalist Party remembered that the public is hurt when it is robbed.
Bernard Grech (and Adrian Delia) read from Simon Busuttil’s playbook, his 2017 general election campaign so many in the PN leadership thought disastrous. They went back to his platform calling for the return of the hospitals to the people and shouting ‘Barra! Barra!’, forgetting their public embarrassment at his zeal.
Irony aside, it’s alive, or at least it shows potential. Programmatically still hollow, plagued by foggy extremists in its midst, organisationally shaky, its mission vague, its cohesion, such as it is, fragile. And yet it was alive enough to shake off a long-held paralysing taboo. They no longer feel the need to run away from the biċċa blogger’s investigations. They no longer feel shame in taking up causes that civil society campaigns for.
And that is good. No one resents that. Of course even a corpse kicks, shudders, and exhales, once. It remains to be seen whether this spectacular development is not a freakishly isolated collective act of nostalgia.
But if it isn’t – if there’s something there – we can even stop chuckling at the irony if we can step away from democracy’s wake. If we can substitute cynicism and despair with hope for a solution for a future, maybe later rather than sooner, where we no longer need accept an eternity of Robert Abela’s gaslighting and Joseph Muscat’s deep frowns, we can put aside our admonitions, and our knowing self-awareness. We will keep our whispers of ‘I told you so’ and ‘If only you hadn’t gone rogue, we’d be much closer to change now’ to ourselves if we have to.
Because as democracy dies in thunderous applause so does it rise again from the ashes in the silence of its witnesses and their tearful hope that their children forget their past.