Political parties and social movements rely on numbers for influence and support. The most obvious example of this is through votes in elections. When the Nationalist Party won a majority of votes in the 1981 general election, it did not win the largest number of seats and remained in Opposition. But the perfectly legal Labour victory had an aura of illegitimate governance around it.
Conversely, Labour’s massive general election victory in 2013 might be giving the party a sense of overconfidence in its decision-making process.
The logic of numbers goes beyond such examples, though. In the past years, numbers have also been used in public demonstrations as a show of force.
For example, the General Workers’ Union Issa Daqshekk campaign initially attracted thousands in protest against the previous Nationalist government. Front Ħarsien ODZ organised the biggest environmental protest ever a year ago against development at Żonqor.
The Labour Party showed that it is capable of attracting bigger crowds than the Nationalist Party and civil society in its recent May Day meeting. Of course, Labour used its power of incumbency for example to accommodate shiploads of people making their way to Valletta. But, nevertheless, the show of support was there.
Yet, the logic of numbers is not always so clear-cut and straightforward. Sometimes, small numbers may have considerable social and political impact.
Think of Greenpeace’s global activism against whale hunting and oil drilling. A small number of on-the-ground activists consistently make it to the global news headlines. Dramatic and sensational social movement repertoires sometimes remain ingrained in the collective imagination.
A big crowd of loyal hardcore voters might be less effective than a smaller crowd of floaters
The impact of ‘small’ numbers can also be evident in elections. For example, a not-so big amount of numbers may serve as a political ‘threat’. In Malta, the relative strength of the Green party, to date, has been expressed in its possibility of winning votes that could otherwise have gone to the bigger parties. Narrow election results could thus be very much influenced by the influence of small parties. Hence, the strategy of bigger parties to ‘usurp’ small party issues, particularly during election time.
In an age of social media and information technology, there are also other ways how the logic of numbers is expressed.
Media outlets and political parties regularly rely on opinion surveys to gauge political support and sentiments. Political events and demonstrations are also shared through the global media, as was the case with protests from Egypt to Iceland and from Turkey to Hong Kong in recent years and months.
Facebook, Twitter, blogs and You Tube are increasingly being used in conjunction with global media outlets raging from BBC to Al Jazeera. In the process, power elites are finding it increasingly difficult to cover-up or hide stories that can dent their support.
The Panama Papers are a current case in point. Counter narratives from all parts of the globe are constantly questioning the ‘official stories’ of politicians, meaning that, in many societies, one-way top-down propaganda is simply no longer possible.
The social media also enables people to participate in the politics or social movement activism of their choice at the click of a button. Indeed, organisations such as Amnesty International rely on online donations, sharing of news and online petitions to get their message across.
The logic of numbers may also carried out by ‘silent majorities’ of people who are not formally active in political parties or social movements but who follow the myriad of news through their smartphones or laptops. Such people might not attend protests but they still may have strong opinions.
They might not be diehard voters who will always vote for the same party and their political reflexivity might result in a change of voting preferences from one election to another.
If this is to be transposed to the current governance controversy facing Maltese society one might not necessarily take part in street protests but may still be angered by the seemingly untouchable status of oligarchs.
Besides, a big crowd of loyal hardcore voters might be less effective than a smaller crowd of floaters as the latter have an increasingly bigger impact in elections.
Party strategists know the significance of floating voters who stand up to be counted. And standing up to be counted can also take place from the silence of one’s home and translated in one’s vote.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.