The disastrous PA decision will have a long-lasting effect that few admit as yet. September 20, 2018 marks the date when a grave polarisation came into effect: between those few who hold the power and the many who do not.
by Francois Zammit
Image by Isles of the Left
The Planning Authority’s decision to approve the megalomaniac project on the former ITS site has opened a deep wound that will have far-reaching political repercussions which none of our short-sighted major political parties are envisaging. The people are feeling betrayed by the political class and the institutions like the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), whose role should be that of protecting the environment and interests of society at large.
What everyone witnessed during the 6 hour long PA board meeting on the proposed db Group development on the ITS site was a farcical exercise of defending the project application from the public and rubber-stamping the go-ahead. All sense of legitimacy was lost when the ERA representative, Victor Axiaq, instead of being a critical voice, acted as a defence attorney for the db Group and took it upon himself to ridicule the preoccupations of the thousands of people who actively objected to this megalomaniac project.
The outcome of this shameful board meeting is not a perception but an objective fact that is on record and to which future generations will be able to return time and time again. September 20, 2018 will go down in history as the date when the political class betrayed its electorate and chose to undermine the very democratic process that placed them in positions of power and responsibility.
The Neoliberalism’s Faithful
The Labour Party under Joseph Muscat was elected into government in 2013 with the cry for unity, non-partitocracy, meritocracy, safeguarding against corruption and protection of the environment. This was the electoral manifesto of the Labour Party in a nutshell. Many voted out the Nationalist Party (PN) in the hope that consecutive years of malpractice and favouritism would be finally eradicated from Maltese politics. Many hoped that the paradigm shift in politics would become a reality.
Amid the allegations and evidence of corruption at the highest echelons of government, the snap elections of 2017 reconfirmed the Labour Party in power. Ironically enough, the tables were turned, and this time the PN had on its banners the same values pledged by Labour’s electoral programme four years prior. I will not delve into why the electorate voted for PL instead of PN; at face value, it seems that many felt that the old guard within the PN ranks could not materialise the promises and that the PL was leading the country in the right direction.
Right now, it is unclear what direction Maltese politics will be taking.
The ineffective PN opposition offers the same pro-business mantra with a sprinkle of anti-immigrant discourse for good measure.
On the one side, there is a party in government whose mantra is economic growth at all costs and who promote Malta as a pro-business haven. On the other, there is an ineffective opposition dogged by infighting and offering the same pro-business mantra with a sprinkle of anti-immigrant discourse for good measure.
Although PN’s representative voted against the db project, there is still a strong level of distrust, considering it was this party that advocated the introduction of major real estate projects as a means of bolstering the economic growth. Fort Chambray (1993) and Tigne Point & Manoel Island project (2000) are purveyors to the model adopted by the Labour Party in the ITS project, whereby public land is transferred to private ownership for real estate and commercial development.
The PA and its predecessor MEPA steamrolled its decision over all objections and objectors. The current government showered entrepreneurial juggernauts with affection by changing laws, adapting infrastructure and warning the public about the inevitable disastrous consequence of economic slowdown. The most recent and bizarre example of that is the government’s commitment to assist the db’s project by building the required tunnel—in other words, public funds will be used against the public interests.
The Shadow Puppet Masters
The state of affairs is that the democratic process is subverted by the very democratic mechanism of electoral campaigns and races.
The electorate has been placed into a constant electoral mode and cannot escape campaign fatigue.
At this point, the electorate has been placed into a constant electoral mode and cannot escape campaign fatigue. Constant campaigning is becoming the order of the day. In between the general elections, European parliamentary elections, local council elections and the possibility of snap elections; there is a continuous barrage of political campaigning and propaganda. Apart from demanding constant attention and hence being tiring, this is also a financial burden that threatens the very existence of democracy. The funding of mega expensive campaigns of political parties and their delegates is mired by secrecy and hidden interests.
A glimpse of such lobbying strategy came from none other than the Malta Developers’ Association boss Sandro Chetcuti, who famously stated that “We are businessmen and we work with everyone. Political parties are like big shops … sometimes you buy from one, sometimes you buy from the other. No more, no less.” This simply means that political parties shape their policies not for the objective benefit of the country but to please the big business, from Malta and elsewhere.
On September 20, the PA board meeting on the proposed ITS development openly neglected the democratic principles.
On September 20, the PA board meeting on the proposed ITS development openly neglected the democratic principles. db Group did not hide its close ties to both the PN and the PL. Same applies to many other contractors like Polidano Brothers or Vassallo Builders. For the last few decades these companies have been the shadow puppet masters of government decisions, largely to the detriment to the rest of the population.
The two major parties are one with big business. So much so that various public figures move freely back and forth between business and the political arena. Case in point: Jesmond Mugliett and Lou Bondi, both staunch bulwarks of the PN machinery in the past, now work for the db Group and actively seek the PL’s support of this project. Both individuals switched their allegiances in a seamless manner—indeed, they have put into practice Chetcuti’s words of buying from whichever shop suits their interests best.
All of the above only confirms the utter similarity of the two major parties’ economic agendas. Ultimately, they are two sides of the same coin and that leaves no real alternative for the electorate to choose from.
The Future of Democracy
The disastrous PA decision will have a long-lasting effect that few admit as yet.
The individual citizen feels disempowered and voiceless.
Firstly, it further confirmed the perception of the absence of choice in Maltese politics; the disillusionment with the democratic process will keep increasing. Secondly, it was yet another testimony to the power of big business who have politicians and political institutions at their bidding. The individual citizen feels disempowered and voiceless. Finally, the promises of inclusion that was so successful for the PL in 2013 has been debunked and invalidated by their own decisions and efforts.
A post-2013 myth professed that a partisan polarisation was a thing of the past and that in the new Malta everyone can work together and share the success. Yet, 20th September 2018 marks the date when a far graver polarisation came into effect: between those few who hold the power and the many who do not. More than 4,500 objections (a record amount!) and protests had no effect whatsoever on the decision-making process, leaving people with a feeling of powerlessness.
One of the plausible consequences of this event is that disenfranchised people will become more susceptible to demagoguery.
The plausible consequences of this event to the democracy are the following: disenfranchised people will become more susceptible to demagoguery; either they withdraw from taking part in protests or the antagonism between the interest groups becomes more violent and personal.
There is however a ray of hope. Resistance to the db proposal catalysed grassroots mobilisation at the community level. Pembroke residents, local councils of Pembroke, St. Julians and Swieqi, NGOs like Friends of the Earth Malta, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Din L-Art Ħelwa and the pressure group Moviment Graffitti joined forces against this development.
Another chance to preserve Maltese democracy from continuous degradation is to take stands on the country’s matters on a daily basis. The electorate should voice their disappointment with the political class in no uncertain way—by openly confronting them, boycotting their activities or by voting for the minor parties (AD and PD were openly against this development from the beginning and not in an opportunistic manner like the PN.) We can only hope that there will be further cooperation among residents, local councils and NGOs, resulting in a stronger and more effective resistance to anti-democratic projects in the future.
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