Times of Malta ‒ Masters, servants and favours


Politicians endlessly repeat that their mission is ‘to serve’. But who is their master? There is a big difference between serving the country and serving individuals in exchange for political support and power.

Word on the streets is that political pa­tronage played a role in the election. Bolstered by reports of jobs for Gozitans, planning permits and other benefits, client­e­lism is being presented as the magic wand for success. This is a real and present danger with every administration. It can part­ly be curbed by tightening checks to ensure that dishing out selective favours and rewards is harder. Are there no rules, for instance, about government recruitment during electoral campaigns?

One problem with clientelism is that re­sour­ces are not distributed fairly or sustainably. On the environmental front, if some are allowed to build, take or use whatever they desire, using up scarce resources such as land and ground water, they deprive others (and future generations) of this common good. Building is irreversible as ‘disturbed’ land is just an excuse to keep on building. Depleting the water table can go beyond tipping point.

Giving out permits outside the development zones to please individuals may serve short-term politics but does not serve the country in the long term. Attempting to double the population to sell more apartments is madness. Malta will end up the Easter Island of the Mediterranean, a symbol of ecological collapse fuelled by greed and lack of foresight.

Another problem with clientelism is that it is a form of control. It aims to motivate and mobi­lise political support, but its flipside is that people become afraid to speak out lest they are discriminated against. In a system where resources and opportunities are only given to people who toe the line, many potential critics and watchdogs are instinctively silenced.

Client-patron relationships are linked to traditional rural communities in many countries, where in the past a padrone provided protection, work and routes to advancement. Workers were often ex­ploited in these power relations, and official institutions were mistrusted. The roots of the Sicilian mafiosi lay in a social system of patronage, but there it turned criminal with the extortion of protection money, violence and murder.

One might expect client-patron relationships to fade and disappear as society develops and becomes more democratic. Clearly not. Clientelism may have changed its shape, colour and size, but it sounds like it is still pulling the strings.

In a system where resources and opportunities are only given to people who toe the line, many potential critics and watchdogs are instinctively silenced

Our electoral districts are small and competition between candidates is fierce. The temptation to do favours or ask for them, is huge. Some argue that our political system should be reformed to minimise direct links between politicians and voters, for example by having only one district for all Malta, as in the European Parliament elections.

On one hand, it seems attractive to be able to vote for any candidate of a party, instead of just those of one district. But surely this would restrict choices for voters overall, as political parties would presumably field fewer candidates. Having only one district in general elections would require some kind of internal selection of a party list for the ballot sheet.

And if last week’s internal voting procedures for the casual elections of PN candidates are anything to go by, party lists and choices have the potential to be quite controversial. A more limited list could, for example, be biased towards more established candidates and reduce the number of fresh faces on the ballot sheet. That would then reduce the opportunity for voters to steer the country, or a political party, in a fresh direction.

The Berlusconi factor

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was constantly accused of tax fraud and other serious misconduct, and yet Italians kept on voting for him.

His ties with the Italian me­dia may have helped him, but this explanation on its own does not wash. He was certainly no favourite of the foreign press, and his continued success at the polls caused much head scratching in the search for an explanation.

One theory was that Italian voters were attracted to the image of the big man, the strong, macho leader whose charisma and entrepreneurial vision could solve all problems and swing all deals in Italy’s favour. Something similar went on in the US with the admiration for Donald Trump.

The reality is quite different. Despite many years in office, Berlusconi did not solve Italy’s economic and social problems and Trump seems unlikely to solve anything at all.

Another line of analysis for Berlusconi’s success was that many be­ne­­fited personally from his governing style. Softer regulations were favoured (for personal gain) by a wide range of businessmen and other voters.

An alternative explanation was that for a period of time, Berlusconi did not face a serious challenge by a charismatic leader from an opposing party.

And finally, that Italians tend to support political parties like football teams.

Does any of this sound familiar?

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