The hundreds of people who will troop to Għadira Bay for a refreshing swim this morning can hardly imagine how, 35 years ago today, doing the same thing conveyed a political message.  

It was 1982 and Dom Mintoff's Labour government was six months into its third term after the most controversial electoral result in Malta's political history. In the general election of December 1981 it won a majority of seats in parliament despite getting a minority of votes.

The Nationalist Party, which had contested that general election for the first time under its leader Eddie Fenech Adami protested vehemently and boycotted parliament. It then launched a campaign of passive resistance and civil disobedience, ordering its supporters not to go to work on Mnarja – which was then an ordinary working day – but to go for a swim in Għadira Bay instead.

Shop owners were told to keep their shops closed and likewise head for Għadira.

The anomalous electoral result came about because of a re-drawing of the electoral boundaries by the government-appointed members of the Electoral Commission which made a mockery of constitutional requirements.

The PN launched a campaign of passive resistance and civil disobedience, ordering its supporters not to go to work on Mnarja

The PN directive was judged to be a success by the party. Shops remained closed in Valletta, Sliema, Ħamrun, Birkirkara, Mosta and other localities (notably not in the south) and many workers skipped work. But there was no disruption in the running of the country.

Għadira Bay was packed, with countless Nationalist party flags fluttering in the breeze. A PN flag was raised beneath the Maltese flag alongside the statue of St Paul on Mellieħa heights overlooking the bay.

The atmosphere was festive. But the government fumed.  

Any government would have sought to calm political tensions, maybe even downplay the impact of the opposition's actions.

But true to his character, Dom Mintoff, who at the time was visiting China, took the opposite course and sought confrontation. His response was draconian.

Workers who had skipped work were dismissed, transferred or suspended. Some dockyard workers were beaten up when they went to work. Shop owners had their shop licences suspended indefinitely.

Political tension went through the roof and Malta started a downward spiral which culminated in the Tal-Barrani incidents, the fatal shooting of Raymond Caruana and the frame-up on Pietru Pawl Busuttil (who passed away yesterday.)

The Labour government eventually did restore the shop licences. But many workers suffered their political transfers for years.

The PN's civil disobedience campaign ended quietly but political tension remained at a knife-edge.

It was a situation the current Labour Party today distances itself from.

Did the civil disobedience campaign achieve anything? Not really. Its only success may have been that of strengthening resolve among PN supporters. But the Labour government, despite lacking a popular majority, stayed in office right up to the last Saturday allowed by law.

Constitutional amendments to guarantee majority rule were eventually brought in at the eleventh hour – but that only happened in the wake of the Tal-Barrani incidents and the killing of Raymond Caruana. And those amendments still need to be refined further to avoid a repeat of gerrymandering (should three parties be elected separately to Parliament).

The Nationalist Party only just won the general election of 1987, despite the economy being in the doldrums.


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