Joseph Muscat has managed to unite Malta's polarised voters. Can it last?by Charlie Askew / March 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
On the dusty periphery of the EU, one of the world’s most enthusiastic democracies redefined itself this monthj. The citizens of Malta—a country where voting is not compulsory, but turnout is among the highest in the world—voted overwhelmingly for the Partit Laburista (Labour Party), which in the past has been militantly working class and socialist, following 15 years under the conservative Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party). It was the country’s first landslide election since independence from Britain in 1964. After 93 per cent of the electorate cast their vote on Sunday, the mood in Malta’s main town, Sliema, was contemplative.
Politics is at the heart of daily life in Malta. Political affiliation is determined according to family and tradition, values that are fundamental to this nation of villages. Mix in class divide and the result has been a rigid political divide between working class, left-wing Labour and middle class, centre-right Nationalists, spurred by ardent partisanship; stories abound of grannies on IV drips wheeling themselves off to vote.
For the past 30 years, the two parties have been split on every issue, from the European Union to divorce. Neither party tried to avoid the division. Instead, it was embraced as an expression of Malta’s unique political culture, an incomparable mixture of Maltese pride, Italian Catholic family loyalty and Westminster democracy. Academic studies have shown the unusually high level of solidarity and exclusivity to parties that this division generates. For the Maltese, being Labour or Nationalist is not just a political identity but a cultural one too.
The dynamic is entrenched by the blending of public and private spheres. Each of the island’s 13 constituencies contains roughly 25,000 constituents and has five politicians, promoting an intense localism. In the close environment of Maltese towns, politicians are a part of their community, not just because they live there but because they are a local family member, company owner, shopper and drinker. Politicians spend years building up support from this, eventually mobilising wide networks of family and acquaintances to vote, leading to the sense of political and cultural intimacy that pervades Maltese politics. Since 1964, this intimacy has ensured that elections have been won and lost by single percentage points. Family and tradition, it seemed, ruled politics here.
Sunday’s result shattered that tradition. Labour, under their new leader, 39-year-old Joseph Muscat, stormed ahead, winning 55 per cent of the vote. In so doing, Labour transformed Malta’s political culture, enticing voters away from the Nationalists, family and tradition.
This stunning success, carrying a majority of nine seats, is a testament to their young leader. Though the Maltese revel in their division, it also generates a sense of insolent pride. Muscat’s transformation of Labour to a party for both classes capitalised on this—and the fatigue of the Nationalists—to unite rather than divide, embodying the spirit in their strapline; Malta Taghna Lkoll (Malta for us all).
Clear parallels can be drawn with Tony Blair’s early efforts. When Muscat came to the helm in 2008, Labour was resolutely re-distributionist and eurosceptic. His 2013 manifesto begins with the maxim “education comes first,” and focuses on social justice, allied to a desire to support the enterprising upwardly mobile and EU. It is a manifesto for a new class of supporters—the aspirational middle class—and it worked for Muscat as it did for Blair. Faced with a Nationalist party weighed down by inertia and accusations of corruption, his dynamism and promises of change overcame localism and tradition.
But as the similarities herald success, so they remain a warning. Muscat has successfully detoxified Labour. But, like Blair, he will face the challenge of satisfying the competing needs of his new and old voters; those demanding lower taxes and wealth generation versus those in manufacturing and manual labour with shrinking wages, threatened by globalisation and immigration.
Muscat will not lead his country to war, but he is leading a country in a fundamental state of redefinition. As the landslide result hides the still-present division in Malta, he must tread a fine line in balancing his priorities and avoiding entrenched interests. Malta is only a step away from re-embracing division and disharmony. If Muscat overreaches, Blair’s fate may befall him too.