The heated life of Malta's politics
By Eric Maurice
Malta has been commended in Brussels for its smooth presidency of the Council, since January, at a time of post-Brexit uncertainty. But back home, domestic politics can be just as tumultuous as the winds on the rocky Mediterranean island.
During a visit earlier this year to the EU's smallest state, EUobserver witnessed Valletta's carnival - where the array of grotesque painted figures included ministers involved in corruption accusations.
Days before, on the same streets, the opposition Nationalist Party (PN) had organised a demonstration to accuse the government of restricting freedom of speech in a bill to regulate the internet. People were still speaking of allegations that one minister had visited a brothel while on a visit to Germany.
Later in March, the ruling Labour Party accused PN leader Simon Busuttil of making fake invoices for illegal donations to pay salaries in his party.
The PN, for its part, says Labour is corrupt, since the Panama Papers revealed last year that companies had been set up in tax havens by close associates to the prime minister, Joseph Muscat.
In this context, following Maltese politicians on Twitter is like being a spectator in a permanent verbal fight, where insults and mockery are traded almost daily.
At the end of March - while the PN hosted the congress of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and gloated over support by leaders like Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk or Angela Merkel - the head of the government's communications taunted Busuttil about former Italian premier Berlusconi's "lousy endorsement".
Meanwhile, one PN MEP mocked Muscat for having "frantically" tried to meet EPP leaders too.
"Polarisation is ingrained in our political culture," said sociologist Michael Briguglio.
"We have only two parties in parliament. It's a dualistic political system, very partisan. It's only black or white," he told EUobserver.
Malta's political system is inspired by British politics, a legacy of British rule that lasted until 1964. But political parties have deep roots in the island's society.
"The political culture comes from village politics," a political scientist, Mario Vassallo, noted.
"Malta is made up of parishes," he explained. "Each parish celebrates its own annual feast, for which there are band clubs. Each band club is in favour of a different saint, breaking villages into two."
These band clubs, he said, were "the predecessors of political parties".
Another observer of Malta's political scene - who preferred to stay anonymous to avoid being involved in the contentious debates - quipped that parties were like churches, with their own pope (the leaders), their own dogma (the programme) and their own cult (the party culture).
He said that the fight between the two "faiths" made the two sides seem irreconcilable.
Muscat and his Labour Party came to power in 2013 after the Nationalist Party's worst defeat in history.
"For Labour, Muscat is seen as saviour of the party," noted Briguglio. "He is a very charismatic speaker."
He is "different from the normal breed of politicians," added Vassallo, pointing out that Muscat studied policy, European studies and holds a PhD relating to management and economics.
"He took over from lawyers in politics," he observed.
With the EU's rotating Council presidency, the 43-year-old prime minister is also raising his international profile, and some in Brussels think he could be a contender to succeed Donald Tusk as European Council president in 2019.
Malta's PM Joseh Muscat. A "charismatic speaker" with a "polarising style" (Photo: EU2017MT)
Muscat's Labour party is favourite to win a new mandate in 2018, thanks to the PN's difficulties to overcome its defeat.
"The Nationalist Part has big internal problems, including problems to finance itself" said Vassallo, a professor of public policy at the University of Malta. "It is making extra effort to put its house in order, but it still needs to provide an alternative programme of government."
But after four years in power, Muscat is much less invulnerable.
"The government has been facing heavy criticism from opposition, civil society, and part of the media," said Briguglio, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Malta, who is also a Green local councillor in Sliema - a town which is part of Valletta's urban area.
"Labour had promised a new style, based meritocracy, but it is seen as rather corrupt," he said, referring to some appointments in key positions, alleged scandals over public procurement and, above all, the Panama Papers revelations.
Among the thousands of leaks, published by a consortium of international media in April 2016, were the revelations that Konrad Mizzi, then energy and health minister, and Keith Schembri, Muscat's chief of staff had established companies in New Zealand and Panama under shady deals.
A third company was also set up, but its owner has so far remained unknown.
The Panama Papers and accusations of corruption have become the PN's main angle of attack against the government.
The revelations were "something huge", PN shadow health minister Claudette Buttigieg told EUobserver in an interview.
"All the country was shocked to have one of [the] main ministers directly involved," she said.
She pointed out that Malta lost 10 places in the latest Transparency International ranking on corruption, and accused Muscat of not trying to shed light on the case.
"Either our prime minister cannot do anything or our prime minister is choosing not to do anything," she said. "Is [he] in control or is he [being] manipulated? This is the big question."
Muscat, who won a vote of confidence just after the revelations, has so far denied any wrongdoing by his associates. Mizzi was removed from his energy and health portfolio, but is still at the prime minister's office as a minister without portfolio.
Asked by Brussels journalists about the case in January, he said that all interests had been "declared beforehand". He said that Mizzi "didn't do anything illegal" and insisted that his government abolished prescription in corruption cases and passed a law to protect whistle-blowers.
"Labour's style of government has increased polarisation", and the Panama Papers increased the trend, noted Briguglio.
As in other countries, the Labour and Nationalist parties have come closer to each other in terms of policies.
While the Labour Party, including Muscat, campaigned against Malta's EU accession in 2004, it is now as pro-EU as the Nationalist Party.
And even though the PN is still seen as the pro-business party, Muscat's government is a defender of Malta's low tax policies and is applying fiscal discipline. On 30 March, the country announced its first budget surplus in 32 years.
Analysts agree that politicians compensate for the growing lack of major differences with more aggressiveness towards each other.
"Polarisation is not ideology-based," said political scientist Vassallo
As a consequence, party loyalty is waning and the number of floating voters has increased. As Labour and PN "are now almost speaking same language, they create artificial differences to hold patronage on their core members," Vassallo noted.
Amid political convergence and the use of corruption accusations, much of the debate "is on good governance, on who is ethical or not ethical," he pointed out.
"The conflict is not anymore on policy options, but more in respect to good governance."
On this shifting political ground, civil society "has opened up in the past years and has become more vociferous," observed sociologist Briguglio, whose field of research is civil society.
He explained that Malta's EU accession has accelerated the evolution and "has opened up opportunities" for NGOs.
Vassallo noted however that although there has always been protests in Malta, he has "never seen an incidence where government stability was threatened because of street protest."
He said that party polarisation and voters' disaffection showed the necessity for more civic education.