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Reclaiming our democracy

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

“The era of liberal democracy is over,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in May after securing a fourth term.

The right-wing leader known for his authoritarian style of rule and his scepticism towards the EU, has been in power since 2010.

Liberal democracy is defined as “a democratic system of government in which individual rights and freedoms are officially recognised and protected, and the exercise of political power is limited by the rule of law”.

This democracy is increasingly falling out of favour in the West, and in some countries it is being systematically dismantled to make way for illiberal democracies – also called partial democracies or empty democracies.

Illiberal democracies are, according to Fareed Zakaria, “democratically elected regimes often re-elected or reinforced by referendums that ignore the constitutional limits of their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and liberties”.

In Europe, Hungary and Poland have veered in that direction, with Malta rapidly sliding down the same, slippery slope.

In an article entitled ‘Your guide to dismantling a democracy‘, The Shift News gives a blow by blow account of how illiberal democracies are forged, and the article should be read attentively, for the death of liberal democracy and the onward march of authoritarianism are often imperceptible, until it is too late.

There is no apocalypse. Laws continue to be enacted and enforced. There is still political dissent and open protest. There are even elections. Life under authoritarian rule can look a lot like life in a democracy. The main difference is that the leader rules autocratically, with a ‘my way or the highway’ style.

Typically, charismatic presidents and prime ministers (the strongmen type) subvert the very process that brought them to power, slowly transforming the country into an illiberal democracy by stifling free thought and free speech, intimidating or taking over the free press, manipulating public opinion, capturing the Executive and the institutions, dismantling checks and balances, decimating rule of law, and taking control of the judiciary as well as the police.

Populism and nationalism become key axes for authoritarian legitimisation and political rallying and mobilisation. Unfettered, widescale corruption at the highest levels of government become the order of the day.

All this has been gradually happening in Malta for the past five years under the premiership of Joseph Muscat. Yet, astonishingly, the public outcry is imperceptible, characterised by inertia and complacency in some cases, brazen approval, endorsement or complicity in others.

One of the reasons for the relative silence is the rampant polarisation of the population in terms of partisanship. Many in Malta find their identity in the political party they support, and are simply incapable of rational thought, as they forgo this right to the party leader.

Erich Fromm – psychoanalyst, social behaviourist and philosopher – describes in his book ‘Escape from Freedom’ how blind admiration for an authority can result in slavish devotion to the person. The Shift News has in fact uncovered the strong, coordinated propaganda efforts to raise Joseph Muscat to the status of royalty among his supporters in its investigation of secret pro-Muscat groups.

The main element subduing public outcry however is a massive disinformation and indoctrination campaign by the government. People’s minds are constantly being bombarded by the government and by PL with Cambridge Analytica-style propaganda and manipulation.

Some examples of false truths that Muscat has successfully managed to imbue in the psyche of the Maltese include:

  • Liberal democracy and democracy are the same thing – They are not. Liberal democracy is characterised by fair, free and competitive elections, the separation of powers of the different branches of the State, the rule of law in everyday life, and the indiscriminate upholding of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all. The idea that elections in a country signify a liberal democracy is untrue. In Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, there are elections too…
  • Victory in an election absolves the winner from criticism or accusations of wrongdoing – They do not. Only a court of law can do that.
  • The fact that there are laws in the country, that new ones are constantly being enacted, and that they are kept and enforced means that rule of law subsists – This is incorrect. In dictatorships, there are laws, new laws are made and they are enforced. That is not rule of law but rule by law. Rule of law has to do with human rights, with freedom of speech and with democracy and democratic processes, besides law and order and justice.
  • A strong economy can only subsist if there is rule of law – This too is a fallacy; there are countries where rule of law is not upheld that are currently doing extremely well economically.
  • Economic prosperity is equivalent to wellbeing – It is not; wellbeing includes several other attributes, though economic wellbeing is certainly one aspect.
  • If a government is managing a strong economic performance, it doesn’t really matter if there is corruption – Of course it does; corruption is wrong and affects individuals and society.
  • If people call out corruption, they are being negative, pessimists and traitors and they are compromising Malta’s economy – No. They are being loyal to their country, loyal to society and loyal to the values of integrity and social justice.

Those battling against the assault on liberal democracy are few. With a fractured opposition, our only bastions of democracy at the moment are a handful of brave journalists who refuse to be silenced, despite the ominous warning sent to them in the form of the barbaric execution of Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are joined by a group of determined activists who remain defiant even when complacency is the norm.

The battle against an autocratic demagogue is a war of attrition against a much stronger opponent. It is time for all people to wake up, and realise that the least bad form of government is in trouble, and that they need to react and enter into the fray before it is too late. Otherwise, we may one day wake up to find the road back to democracy is out of reach.

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