Beware the Prime Minister who says he wants a strong Opposition. That’s what Joseph Muscat said last Sunday, and I see it as a very bad sign. It’s rather like wanting a Scrabble opponent to have a strong vocabulary, but not quite as strong as yours, because you want your wins to be less one-sided. It only happens when you’re in total control of the game – which is fine (if boring) in Scrabble, but not so much in politics.
When the Prime Minister says that the country needs a strong Opposition, he is not nastily rubbing it in. (Or maybe he is, but not only.) Nor is he regurgitating a piece of hackneyed rhetoric to come across all democratic. Instead, what he’s up to is what has been called “encompassing the contrary”.
The PN is now so weak that it can comfortably be called a subsystem or subculture. Thing is, subsystems and subcultures are inevitably governed by the systems and cultures to which they belong. Put simply, Muscat can afford to embrace the Opposition and wish it strength, simply because he knows that the rules of the embrace are set by him.
Pinch of salt at hand and all, the results of a survey conducted a couple of days ago suggest that the gap between the two parties could now be as big as 100,000. If that figure is right and an election were held tomorrow, the Labour government would be in a position to change the Constitution at will, with a two-thirds one-party majority in Parliament.
The last time the situation was so lopsided was in the 1940s, when, fairly or not, the PN had a little something called the fallout of World War II to deal with.
I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that we’re slipping into an effective one-party State. It’s not that elections are rigged, or that government has banned all opposition and taken to persecuting political dissent. The comparisons with Erdoğan’s Turkey are far-flung to say the least, and the Labour trolls’ argument an extended bout of Nationalist whingeing. Usual qualifiers in place, this one-party State is of the democratic kind.
Which makes it more insidious, and much harder to oppose. (No wonder Muscat wants a “strong” Opposition.) A democratic one-party State is one in which the overwhelming majority of people are broadly happy with, or at least not too worked up about, the state of the art. In such circumstances, to attempt to oppose is to hit the brick wall of pointlessness and lethargy.
Muscat’s Labour used various means to get there. The first step was to build broad alliances and capitalise on the sense of rot that tends to creep in when a party is in government for a very long time. The second was to generally accommodate Nationalists within the lines of access to resources; as someone put it to me the other day, ‘lin-Nazzjonalisti ma sawtuhomx’ (Nationalists weren’t handled roughly). I know enough Nationalists to be able to vouch for that.
The PN’s big problem has nothing to do with fractures, splits or the leadership. Rather, it has nothing much to say, apart from Panama
The third was a general laissez-faire, with all its usual dividends and heavy costs. Laissez-faire is great if you want to transform a field room into a villa. It is not so great if you happen to be interested in the wild plants growing in that field. As is, the people who want villas in fields, added to those who don’t much care what grows where, greatly outnumber the botanists.
It helps the cause that there are no differences of substance between the two parties. With respect to economics, welfare, culture and a host of other things, they speak exactly the same language. Nor are there any defining issues that separate them. The days when Labour believed that thuggery was holy and colour television evil are ancient history, and there is no longer EU membership to disagree about.
So far as the PN is concerned, the internecine discord and sometimes open conflict that we’ve seen recently don’t help, of course, if anything because they haemorrhage the party of any vitality it may have and make it difficult to rally the troops and mobilise resources.
But let us for a minute assume that the PN was one happy family, and that Adrian Delia and Simon Busuttil were the most inseparable of fishing buddies. Would that change the party’s present predicament in any dramatic way? I doubt it.
The reason is that the PN’s big problem has nothing to do with fractures, splits or the leadership. Rather, it is that the party has nothing much to say, apart from Panama. The environment. Of course, the environment. So hooked is the country now on the construction opium, so economically dependent, that a party that raised the slightest suspicion that it opposed the madness would be condemning itself to the political fringe.
Which is why Delia is having to limit himself to bromide like “better planning” and “sustainability development”. That, or go on about the five cents increase in the price of petrol and diesel, as he did on television the other day. He didn’t look convinced, let alone convincing. It is clear from the fleets of boats and the number and size of cars around, that most people won’t even notice the missing five cents. Those who might are unlikely to vote PN anyway, for demographic reasons.
You really have to sympathise with Adrian Delia. As is, his list of options stops at two: to try to shake people out of a comfort zone they have no wish to leave, or to endorse that comfort zone and find himself accused of being too much like Joseph Muscat.
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