Mr J.F.X Zahra's article appears weekly on Newsbook.
Politics is serious business. It is the craft of influence and persuasion that addresses issues related to a multitude of people that constitute society. Political decisions that affect the economy have a direct and an indirect impact on the quality of life of multitude of people. Wrong decisions create unemployment and consequently social misery, while the right decisions create opportunity, choice and well-being.
It is a pity that we are going through an age of cynicism in both politics and politicians. The time of ideologically based politics (be it free market/capitalist or socialist) seems to be over and we are seeing a thorough deterioration in the quality and stature of our politicians. Politicians with strong moral leadership and gravitas such as Margret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, Helmut Kohl in Germany, Aldo Moro in Italy (even with his personal sacrifice) and even our Eddie Fenech Adami in Malta have contributed through the creation of freer countries within Europe and a more profound understanding of personal choice and responsibility.
Time has changed and we are now looking at a political landscape of anti- politics and anti- politicians. The electoral successes of political parties such UKIP in the United Kingdom, Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, and the Pirates Party in Sweden (the list can be much longer), is a reflection of the disaffection with mainstream politics, and their success is more a reflection of a rejection of established party structures than a vote in favour of a new political formation. We can see this also in the Maltese context, when a much more mobile electorate (we used to call these “floating voters”), swayed the vote from one party to the other in more of a vote against an established Party which was in government for nearly twenty five years. It was more of a vote against rather than a vote in favour of the new party in government.
What has fed this cynicism in politics? First and foremost, it is the promises made by politicians before the elections which are then not fulfilled. These promises in our small provincial context are made on a personal or a family basis and this explains the knocking on doors after the election on Ministers' doors. The second reason is the populist stance being taken by politicians today – leading by opinion polls. This populist approach will never address the critical issues in society, and policy will float according to the prevailing mood of the people. This leads to short-termism which implies that the more serious concerns (read welfare state reforms in Malta) will never be addressed by the current government and these decisions will always be postponed. The urge of politicians to be continuously liked will hold them back from taking the decisions that take posterity into consideration. Another factor that has created this cynicism is the death of ideology. Liberalism on one side and Marxism on the other had established two poles of thinking and two opposing categories of politicians. This is no longer – we are now all in the centre. However this has alienated politicians from the reality of people living in the margins of society, those who used to be labelled “labour”. We forgot that there are a relatively sizable number of people who feel completely detached from the antics, lifestyle and behaviour of politicians. No one seems to be willing to address the problems that these people are facing – issues of deprivation and poverty. All parties are now addressing the middle-class while the “labourer” has no voice and no one listens to him. The death of ideology has also had an influence on the quality of our politicians. The traditional professional and intellectual politician motivated by ideology is now extinct, and we are getting politicians who look more like us and who are ready to jump from one party to the other for the sake of personal convenience once all established parties “look and feel” the same. Politics is another opportunity for advancement in society, a career, mostly measured in materialistic terms, and it lacks the romanticism and principles that it had in the past.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of scepticism about where politicians and politics as we know it today will lead us. We must measure success of a political party in government on the basis of its principles, policies, personalities and performance. The three go together – and they are not mutually exclusive. In modern day Malta, the party in government has the advantage to learn from the mistakes made by its predecessor. But will it learn?