A recent survey published by Times of Malta found that a mere six per cent of people attended protests in the last 12 months. An earlier index of political protest in Europe, published in 2015, had placed Malta at the lowest end of protest participation.
Some of Malta’s largest demonstrations in recent years have centred on environmental issues but the focus of late has shifted to questions of justice, governance, corruption and social injustice. In fact, even with six per cent participation at most, pressure from daily protests directly contributed to a government crisis that saw former prime minister Joseph Muscat announce his resignation.
The role of protest in determining Maltese political discourse has never been more essential. For one thing, by banding together to demonstrate against abuse of power and authority, people have realised they are not alone in their concerns.
One way in which any establishment maintains its power is by promoting a dominant discourse that excludes dissident views. Differences in opinion are derided, leaving citizens feeling isolated, marginalised and powerless.
Public demonstrations and marches are a source of empowerment by reminding individuals that they form part of a larger community of like-minded citizens. Such was the case at the recent Black Lives Matter demonstration, held outside parliament.
The physical presence of individuals united in a strong message against systemic racism, and the brutal murder of Lassana Cisse, has gone further than merely highlighting the issues at hand. It is reorganising the national agenda, by drawing attention to the failure of Malta’s stagnant ‘integration policy’ and igniting a very public debate on Maltese racism and xenophobia.
Representational government also risks imposing a ‘tyranny of the majority’ which overrides the rights of minorities. Protests are therefore a vital corrective to majority rule, particularly in a country as fractured along monolithic party lines as Malta continues to be.
Furthermore, while demanding that justice be done, immediately and visibly, protests plant seeds for the next generation to nurture. Protesters tend to be those who have unshackled themselves from past thinking, who by their action express a vision as yet unacknowledged by their political representatives but which will one day be taken for granted.
For example, the changing attitudes towards LGBTIQ people in Malta over the past generation came about largely thanks to creative protest, which latterly transformed into political will.
The year that has just gone by showed that protests are increasingly a motivating factor for positive change in Malta. Attempts to discourage civic protest, or to downplay the importance of protest in the life of the country, are therefore little more than an attempt to gag the free flow of democratic dialogue.
The Maltese, according to the survey, seem more likely to dig into their pockets to donate to charity – an equally worth cause no doubt – than to make their presence felt at protests.
It does appear, though, that Malta’s culture of fear and appeasement which has dominated the public square for generations is no longer as paralysis inducing as it once was.
However, the greatest threat to political protest is apathy, sometimes born of a cynicism fuelled by political allegiances that lie far from the real needs of the electorate. The result is that citizens feel limited in their effectiveness.
By standing up to be counted, in acts of defiance and social solidarity, protesters are now treading a new path of courageous self-determination, which has long been awaited in the modern history of these islands. The changes they have already prompted should spur them on.
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