Democratic life does not begin and end with free and fair elections. If it did, elections would not really be free or fair but a product of the conditioning flushed down people’s conscience during the rest of the time. That would not be a democracy, but a dictatorship that pretends to pause for a day every so many years.

The world is coming to realise that Malta’s democracy is a sham. A blockchain industry publication editorialised last week that the industry should consider looking away from Malta as its “authoritarian” tendencies may not provide the right environment for their business to thrive.

The Great Siege memorial in Valletta, boarded and barricaded. Photo: Matthew MirabelliThe Great Siege memorial in Valletta, boarded and barricaded. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The publication was also concerned that Malta’s terrible reputation with money laundering and corruption might reflect on blockchain, an industry still in its infancy working hard to dispel the suspicion that it harbours thievery and avoidance of law. Fancy that! The pot is embarrassed to be seen in the company of the kettle.

Authoritarianism and corruption are not distinct and separate tendencies. They are symbiotic parasites. Authoritarianism al­lows for secrets to be kept, injustice to be perpetrated and overlooked, and crimes by the power­ful to go unpunished.

Authoritarianism never introduces itself by that name. It seeks legitimacy in the formalities of democratic practice and justification in the alleged enlightenment of the despot.

Consider the narrative of the Joseph Muscat regime. It borrows from Napoleonic plebiscites the legitimacy of voter support which it acquires through a transactional arrangement. It is liberal and open-handed with rules that do not affect the perpetuity of its power. Why insist on planning rules or hunting restrictions or environmentally conscious waste and transport systems if these measures cost voter support? Why discriminate against opposition party supporters if favouring them persuades them to switch allegiances?

The other uncanny Napoleonic strategy is to target groups and segments, focus on a shared need which costs the power base little or nothing, and exchange the solution to that need for committed support.

It’s all fine and dandy if submission to despotic benevolence is an aspiration. However, if you’d rather not knuckle under, authori­tarianism then comes into its own. It will resort to intimidation, discrimination, even violence if it has to, to wipe out all opposition and dissent. It does not do so out of a sense of vengeance. All power understands that confrontation comes at a cost, and though it might be confident of victory, some damage is the byproduct of battle. The oppression meted out by the authoritarian regime is a product of its survival instinct.

That instinct sometimes be­trays the vain image the regime wants to project. Consider how the Prime Minister cringed with embarrassment after police officers dragged protesters out of the Planning Authority building just last week. Graffiti have a pedigree of protest against the greedy exploitation of our environment far older than Muscat’s service record. They have served our democracy with their determination and action for years, and last week they were treated to Soviet-style suppression. Even the Prime Minister realises that it doesn’t look good.

Consider also the scene in Great Siege Square this past week, of a memorial covered by plywood and wrapped in tarpaulin: a new symbol of the current state of play. For 11 months the memorial was a focus for the flicker of dissent against the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of Daphne Caruana Ga­lizia’s political assassination. Politicians, journalists, tourists and traders came from all over the world and paused to ponder why a European country could still play host to the murder of a journalist in this age of enlightenment.

Some paid their respects. Some protested.

The government blocked the square for as long as it thought it could get away with it

Mementos left by visitors to the memorial were repeatedly des­troyed or removed. And each time they were replaced by protesters and well-wishers.

Until the government could not tolerate the defiance any more. Not that it feared that the protest could prejudice its power base in any significant manner. If this were a proper democratic country, the governing Labour Party could find cynical advantage in the existence of a memorial to Daphne. It united its support base in the shared antipathy shown to the protesters. It highlighted the rift within the Nationalist Party and kept the wound fresh. Its to­lerance and acceptance could have projected an image of tolerance of disagreement.

But authoritarianism panics at the sight of dissent. Because the power of the authoritarian regime is a myth, a lie perpetrated to convince everyone it is invincible so it is never truly challenged and tested. It cannot allow vulnerabili­ties to fester, or the hint of challenge to pass without response.

And classically, it overdoes it. The memorial was boarded up and barricaded, covering flowers freshly laid, by the President of Malta no less, on the Saturday afternoon of the national holiday marked by the memorial itself.

The regime is claiming the me­morial is being restored, but that is patently untrue. For a week now, it has been hidden from view without so much as a little feather duster making an appearance. No call for restorers has been issued, no contract has been signed, nor any method statement drawn up. The memorial was fully restored only eight years ago and these things tend to have a longer shelf life than that.

But the government caved in to the inordinate pressure of its supporters, who criticised the party leadership for its apparent loss of authority in the face of persistent protest. So authority is what they have put on show, backed by a small army of vigilantes guarding the barricades with instructions to destroy any flower or candle left there by any straggling, stubborn dissenter.

The memorial had become a symbol of 11 months of determined protest against injustice and impunity in a dysfunctional democracy. Barricades in the heart of the nation’s capital are symptomatic of a republic in worse shape than we could ever have imagined. We now know that the government will use its authority to deny people free movement and free association.

At the same time as the Prime Minister sought to recover from the damage caused by the image of policeman kneeling on the backs of protesters in Floriana, the police barriers that denied access to the heart of Great Siege Square were removed.

This was no Damascus experience. The prevention, by police action, of access to a public square for the peaceful manifestation of political dissent is the darkest shadow on our pretence at democratic life in some 35 years. The government blocked the square for as long as it thought it could get away with it. And it will do so again once the powerful breeze raised by Graffiti in Floriana and felt all the way over in Valletta blows over.

This cannot stand. It is our duty to defy the illegal acts of authoritarian government. We cannot allow anyone to shut down the agora for the sake of their own vanity, and to protect the illusion of their unassailability.

At 7pm tonight, come to Great Siege Square, step into the agora, illegally barred for days by a regime in panic. If democracy still lives in our hearts, our hands and feet, our own clamouring voices must fight to defend it.


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