The political parties are squandering the plentiful goodwill they enjoy with the population, and what they’re risking is more than their own existence. They have put up as collateral for their reckless gambles the very viability of democratic life.
Political parties appear to have forgotten that they do not exist for their own sake. They are merely tools to mitigate some of the impracticalities of democracy. But the tools are more aware of themselves than the function they are supposed to serve, and are now thinking that for as long as they exist, their function can go stuff itself.
Why do we have political parties? Because this is not merely a democracy. It is a republic. That means that we don’t get to take the decisions but rather get to choose who takes the decisions. For that to work in practice we cannot just choose who gets to represent us from the narrow network of the people we know.
If we did, once elected, an unworkable drawn-out process of getting to know each other and negotiating whose ideas get to be dealt with first would crowd out the time needed to actually do something. So parties form lists, to recommend to voters people they never knew but whose political attitudes and programmes can be discerned merely from their association with their party.
Once elected, the party holds candidates elected on its list bound by the commitments they made on its behalf. It serves as a watchdog on politicians, seeking to keep them within a line beyond which they not only harm themselves but the reputation of everyone else in the party. Party elders save themselves by preventing each other from going AWOL.
In effect as well, the drive to occupy the space that secures elections forces parties towards moderation. They need to look different from the other parties in the field, to be sure. But if they go too far down any extreme path they risk alienating their support base and committing the proverbial political suicide.
Political parties can fail. They often do. In the last 30 years alone in Europe we have seen the decimation of generations of parties a day after they looked practically immortal. Each time that happened the collapse of old party systems, crushed under the weight of their inability to adapt to the changes around them, was met with a misguided sense of elation. The vacuum they left behind was filled with populism, and now the threat of extremism is behind every corner.
Consider how Italy moved from the old partitocracy to Silvio Berlusconi to a generation of politicians who openly questions fundamental human rights. Consider how Britain voted as its largest party a grouping that had not existed a month before, hopelessly vague on most aspects of public policy except its central mission to reverse the European project.
Political parties are neglecting their duty of designing the country’s future because they’re entirely absorbed by securing their own fate
Parties fail, and you might think that’s too bad for them. You would be right if you had a good plan on how to replace them with new parties that pursue moderation, provide a dialectic that is productive, are driven by merit and uphold the fundamental rules of the game for democratic life.
I don’t think you have a good plan. That’s probably because the Partit Laburista and the Partit Nazzjonalista have been permanent fixtures in your entire life. That makes you assume they will always be there like a sun and a moon: immutable, immortal, eternal. That’s approximately how the average Italian voter felt about the Democrazia Cristiana and the Partito Communista Italiano circa 1990.
The Partit Laburista looks strong. It is certainly electorally successful, by all accounts financially sound, well packaged and sustained by succession planning that is almost as impressive as the Vatican’s. Outwardly it shows no symptoms of decay.
But politically it’s a hollow husk. It stands for nothing except its own perpetuation. There’s no fight in it except the glorification of its leaders and the preservation of their accomplices. It offers its supporters nothing more than repeated victories that fade further into the background of people’s lives.
The lack of sustainability of its policies in government bear the seeds of its destruction. Disaffection due to environmental degradation, distraction spinning out of anomie, and the accumulation of anger that is the inevitable outcome of industrial-scale clientelism that for every one it favours disappoints someone else, are all weighing down this flimsy edifice that is only propped up by the thin exoskeleton of savvy PR.
The Partit Nazzjonalista has no exoskeleton. Its ability to communicate with the outside world is limited and its efforts to look any better than the blubbery mush we can all see make it frankly more pathetic.
The similarities with the state of the Partit Laburista exceed the differences, though the differences are more apparent. It is not electorally successful, and financially speaking it should not even exist. In place of succession planning, the party leadership staves off starvation by eating its young. The way they turned on MŻPN last week is only the most recent reminder of how the PN seems to think time is travelling in the wrong direction.
But like the PL, the PN has no elevator pitch to answer the question of what it stands for. It has not communicated its views on its own initiative on any policy vertical for years, campaigning instead on quixotic crusades, such as stopping legislation to allow abortions that no one is proposing.
There’s no fight in the PN except the glorification of its leaders and the preservation of their accomplices. Listening to the way the PN’s own media describes its leader is a mortifying, spine-rattling shudder. Straight out of the propaganda tools of a besieged tin pot dictator, they describe his heroic victories and Herculean achievements in words that on anybody else’s lips would be too far out to be even sarcastic.
In other words, the two main political parties have become a single, institutionalised lie. They are completely bereft of any making of politics, reducing ‘the game’ to a regatta of election results with an outcome as predictable as Romeo and Juliet. It feels as if we were born knowing everyone’s place on this stage, and ours is but to applaud and snigger on cue.
Last Thursday night, someone stuck a banner to the front of the PN headquarters demanding its leader’s resignation because the protester said they “want a future” and they perceived the party in Opposition to have placed itself in the way of that.
The irony that perhaps is not immediately obvious is the fact that the protester is challenging a political party to stop being a cocoon that preserves those lucky enough to be inside it and do its job of enabling policy-making for “the future”. Not, emphatically, the future of the people who happen to be running the party from time to time, but everyone’s future.
There’s a deeper irony there. Political parties are neglecting their duty of designing the country’s future because they’re entirely absorbed by securing their own fate. But that is just how they ensure fewer and fewer people see the point of their existence.
When political parties believe the myth of their own immortality is when political parties might just be about to die. What then for our republic?
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece