Two consecutive national demonstrations organised by Civil Society Network attended by over 10,000 people and the emergence of Occupy Justice, a movement led by female activists, have shown signs of vitality from civil society which has moved to fill a vacuum left by both government and opposition in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s murder.
The Occupy Justice initiative may have contributed to the feminist cause more than any quota or political academy, having put non-partisan female activists at the forefront of political activism protesting right in front of the nerve centre of power.
The Civil Society Network has also managed to provide a strong political response to Caruana Galizia’s murder in a very short span of time. Civil society does not exist in a vacuum and its political demands naturally put it on the opposite side of the fence of the Party in government. This has inevitably led to an attempt by Labour trolls to label these initiatives as partisan.
The mix of speakers addressing the two civil society protests included both outspoken critics of the two-party system alongside personalities known for their long-standing affinity to the PN. This was probably vital in securing a critical mass in terms of numbers.
In a country where most vote for either the PN or the PL, it is impossible to conceive of a civil society which does not include people who are attached to either of the two parties. But it is natural for critical thinkers to question the commitment of those who openly backed a party which did not address the institutional deficit when in government.
Michael Briguglio who was at the forefront of civil society protests against past PN and PL governments and who joined the PN when Simon Busuttil was leader represents this dilemma. For just as the country cries out for a vibrant non partisan civil society, it also desperately needs a credible and effective opposition which includes honest people recruited from civil society.
Labour through its army of trolls has skilfully tried to depict civil society protests as orchestrated by the PN but it still failed to stop the movement’s momentum.
So what has civil society achieved?
- Mobilising thousands of people, including people who do not normally attend political activities, to the streets and thus articulate a political response to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death.
- Attracting a very mixed crowd including PN supporters, pale blue voters, radical activists and non-partisan people, probably creating a fluid meeting space which is warming up to demands for wholesome political reforms which go beyond partisan consideration.
- Turning the call for the Police Commissioner’s resignation in to a rallying cry and this giving the movement a tangible aim.
And what are the limits for this civil society movement?
- Civil society is not a political party and therefore cannot secure changes, inevitably leading some to continue to seek change by militating in political parties with a realistic chance of winning power.
- Most people attending such protests belong to an educated minority who may well live in an echo chamber detached from everyday realities of people benefiting from current rates of economic growth.
- It may appear pretentious for a group of activists to speak on behalf of an entire civil society, which also includes people and groups who do not necessarily agree with its entire platform and methods of the Civil Society Network. Still had not the usual suspects taken the initiative, it is probable that nothing would have been organised.
- Civil society remains vulnerable to the eternal clash between goal-oriented pragmatists and puritans who shun any association with the PN, which they blame for not reforming the institutions when in government. Somewhere in between are those who retain their critical spirit without shunning others because of their political allegiances.
- Negotiating with power is never an easy process. Muscat avoided meeting Occupy Justice while they were camping in front of Castille and only accepted to meet them on his own terms.
Despite these difficulties and dilemmas, time has never been better than now for civil society to raise the moral question. But beyond the principled core and the PN-leaning segment of the population which warms up to anyone opposing the government, is anyone else really listening? Will it simply be the equivalent of Turkey’s Gezi Park moment before Erdogan strengthened his grip on power?
On many counts Malta cannot be compared to Turkey, which has a long history of violent repression and censorship. But the indications are that Muscat is keener than ever on strengthening his grip on the institutions while galvanising his own core and his formidable army of sycophants to shoot down any opposition…not on the streets but on social media.
In the absence of a vibrant civil society, Malta may well have drifted further in a more authoritarian direction.