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Life in the trenches of political warfare 

Partisanship leads to people voting for a party for all the wrong reasons

The headquarters of the two main political parties sit a few metres apart, separated only by a state school. This has always conjured in my mind images of World War 1 trenches, with a no-man’s land in between in which few would dare venture into.

The image is actually one that portrays the Maltese political scenario quite accurately. Two parties, two armies, firmly entrenched in their positions. The rules: Take no prisoners. Who is not for us is against us. The winner takes it all.

In one word, partisanship. Partisanship means following blindly your political leader, viewing him as a deity, and his utterances as divine oracles, which you must then faithfully regurgitate without thought or question. And thinking of, and speaking about, the other party and its supporters as the devil incarnate.

Several scholarly papers have been written studying the origins, reasons and effects of partisanship. In Malta the reasons are manifold, among them, history, the dynamics of our society, personal and social identification and the electoral system within the context of a country where there are only two large parties. Party media further increases polarisation, which in Malta is extreme, visibly manifesting itself in the strong turnouts in general elections.

The effects of partisanship can be described very easily – a mess. It leads to people voting for a party for all the wrong reasons. It leads to people taking shortcuts; rather than thinking critically on issues, relying completely and solely on what the party leader, party, and party media has to say about the issues.

Those that do try to apply a little critical thinking often have their thoughts coloured by unconscious biases stemming from their partisanship. For many, their political party must win at all times and at all costs, must win even for the sole sake of winning, must win even if the party is clearly and visibly fixing matches, and the end justifies the means. They cannot even conceptualise voting according to conscience and critical thinking.

Erich Fromm has a perfect description for this situation; all that we need to do is change the word “nation” with “party” wherever it occurs:

“The lack of objectivity, as far as foreign nations are concerned, is notorious. From one day to another, another nation is made out to be utterly depraved and fiendish, while one’s own nation stands for everything that is good and noble. Every action of the enemy is judged by one standard every action of oneself by another. Even good deeds by the enemy are considered a sign of particular devilishness, meant to deceive us and the world, while our bad deeds are necessary and justified by our noble goals which they serve.”

It’s time to do away with this crap. One should express and give allegiance to values and principles not to party leaders, parties or politicians. Values such as Rule of Law, good governance, integrity, justice, zero tolerance to corruption, zero tolerance to discrimination (of any kind and in any form), social justice, fairness, competence, credibility, the common good, public and civic spirit and loving interest in one’s nation and in every member of society among others.

Unless this happens, the country will remain divided into two tribes, fighting in the virtual trenches dug by the parties to the benefit of nobody but the parties.

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