Thursday

23rd Jan 2020

Opinion

Does Malta's Labour Party now belong in S&D?

  • Joseph Muscat's Labour Party has a culture of absolute and unflinching loyalty (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The Maltese Labour Party is a curious creature.

It has a long and proud tradition of fighting for the rights of the working class and the poorer segments of Maltese society. In that respect, it forms part of the wider European social democratic history of the 20th century.

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Unlike many of its sister parties in Europe, it has also, so far, managed to maintain a strong anchorage among its traditional base.

In other ways, the Partit Laburista (Labour Party) quite radically departs from the values, methods, and ways of its brethren elsewhere in Europe and the current deep crisis in Malta has laid this bare.

Some pre-existing troubling tendencies within its party culture should give the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group pause.

The first is a party culture of absolute and unflinching loyalty and the fate awaiting any Labour activist deemed disloyal.

Malta currently has a prime minister who has been asked to leave immediately (rather than in a month and a half's time) for the good of the country and its institutions by a vast array of professional associations, public profiles, NGOs, and ordinary Maltese who previously either supported him or stayed out of the fray.

Because of the alleged involvement of his former chief of staff and other employees of the office of the prime minister in the murder (and its subsequent cover up) of the blogger and investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia, PM Joseph Muscat has become persona non grata beyond Malta.

Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister of Malta's closest and most important neighbour Italy, cancelled a planned meeting with him in Rome over the weekend without explanation.

The European Parliament delegation visiting earlier in the week offered scathing criticism of the Maltese government's handling of the situation and declared that trust had been severely damaged.

In such circumstances most other European democratic parties – barring those on the far-right – would see some key figures asking for the prime minister's immediate departure.

Silence

Not so within the Maltese Labour Party. No minister, MEP, MP, president, or former president has done so publicly and outright even though some have signalled their discomfort at various points in time.

The fate of anyone doing so, I am told over and again, would be that of a traitor who has done the enemy a favour, and would potentially affect not only the individual but also the person's family. So within the party, there is a certain level of fear and a code of loyalty, which has no place in a European social democratic party.

The second aspect is that of violence.

Not surprisingly given the revelations over the last fortnight, there have been loud protests and demonstrations almost daily, mainly in the capital city of Valletta.

During some of those protests, eggs and coins have occasionally been thrown.

Overwhelmingly, the protests have been peaceful however. The egg throwing has been quite in line with the occasional filled cake in the face that other European leaders, such as for instance Joschka Fischer of Germany or the former commission president Jean Claude Juncker have had to endure.

A few days ago, however, home affairs minister Michael Farrugia warned against continued protests. He accused the Nationalist opposition of being behind them, saying that it would be responsible for instigating any violence.

"We have an obligation to the protection of the state … the people instigating the protests will go down in history as having done their best to repeat what happened in the 1970s and 1980s."

This is a direct reference to the times when party-based incidents of sometimes deadly violence occurred, a historic trauma very much alive still today.

Coming from a minister responsible for the police force and for securing the freedom of assembly, this can be considered indirect and veiled intimidation. Again, this seems quite out of line in a European social democratic perspective.

Malta is being rocked by a crisis that is at the same time political, institutional and constitutional.

The current crisis is revealing deep chasms in Maltese society and the failure of governments over the last decades – both Nationalist and Labour – to ensure the independence of the police, the judiciary and the civil service at large.

Both parties have, to varying extents, treated the state as a spoil of war – won or lost in electoral battle. With the current deep and unprecedented crisis, this will hopefully change.

However, it cannot change without a cultural change in the political parties. This is true for both parties of course: the Nationalist party is currently deeply divided and has not parted with its own culture of entrenched patronage, partisanship and tendency to paint the opposing party as the devil incarnate.

Currently, Labour is in power however, and the current crisis has laid bare the long way that the Labour Party has to go in order to conform to values of tolerance of dissent and responsible leadership of its base.

The question is: at this point in time, does the Maltese Labour party belong in the S&D group? Would a temporary suspension help its sounder elements – and there are many – to gain the upper hand of a party which needs to rethink itself in fundamental ways?

Author bio

Dr Anna Khakee is senior lecturer in the international diplomacy at the University of Malta.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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