The parliamentary sessions that followed the eruption of Malta’s Panamagate scandal looked surreal to say the least. In the midst of the credibility mess surrounding the Labour government, the Opposition’s important public domain proposals gained support from both sides of the House. Yet, all Malta was practically focusing on Panamagate. The country had similar example in previous administrations when Dom Mintoff, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Franco Debono andothers had all eyes focused on them.
This time it was Konrad Mizzi’s turn, though unlike Mintoff and co., heprobably tried to avoid being the centreof attention.
Mizzi’s stature went down like a ton of bricks in view of his financial investments in Panama, erstwhile known for attracting suspicious and dirty funds from the global black economy.
When it emerged that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri was involved in similar investments, and when Muscat stood by the duo’s shady deals, this was the cherryon the cake.
Labour’s talk of good governance, transparency and the being best in Europe felt like hot air as never before. In the process, some positive initiatives performed by some ministries have been immensely overshadowed by government’s general malaise. And this includes not only the Panama scandal, but also other examples such as the transport fiasco, the Sadeen non-American non-university and the magisterial mess.
Indeed, Panamagate is much bigger than the obvious demand for theimmediate resignation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. This scandal gives more credence to previous accusations of oligarchic tendencies in Muscat’s governing style.
When you have a whole range of circumstantial evidence regarding government, party and business networks, non-transparent privatisation processes, super ministries, Ceaucescan deputy leader non-contests, and close links with corrupt states, it become simply impossible to think otherwise: the Labour government is becoming increasingly illegitimate.
Mizzi’s stature went down like a ton of bricks in view of his financial investments in Panama
Similar to Orwellian set-ups, the government is led by the same team which made a clear commitment to transparency and accountability before the 2013 general election. In a normal democracy, Mizzi and Schembri would have resigned as soon as the news of their Panama investments went public. If not, they would have been removed from their posts immediately.
Yet, Panamagate has also another side. The scandal has confirmed what other recent scandals - under different administrations – have been showing all along: that civil society and the independent media are here to stay, and politicians are no longer the untouchable ‘super saints’ – as Jeremy Boissevain once put it - of the past.
The independent media – in different forms and styles – has been vital in casting light on this scandal. Civil society – which is becoming increasingly characterised by both physical and digital activism - stood up to be counted in different ways. A non-partisan declaration signed by persons coming from different political and non-political backgrounds, including myself, was produced. We called for the resignation of Mizzi and Schembri and appealed to all members of Parliament to declare any financial investments they may have made abroad in tax havens or other similar jurisdictions immediately.
On the party-political front, the Nationalist Party rallied its troops against the government, Labour was attempting to divert attention elsewhere and Alternattiva Demokratika noted that the governance issue runs deeper than the Panama scandal.
In such a context, the million dollar question is: where from now?
Will all members of Parliament – red and blue – come clean on their financial investments? Will Labour have an internal revolt against its takeover?
All political parties should take note that ignoring the independent media and civil society is no longer an option. Top-down political processes, elitist views towards activists, and dismissal of emerging discourses can practically result in situations where parties are superseded by events and historic moments.
The paradox of Panamagate is therefore characterised by oligarchic tendencies in an increasingly reflexive society. It is as if something needs to be born, but the date is a mystery. Yet, in human societies, history is not inevitable but is made by actors and forces within specific contexts.
Really and truly, there is never a dull day in Maltese politics.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.