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A darkening horizon

Liberal critics of the current state of Maltese politics spend a lot of time finding similarities between populism here and elsewhere. It’s time we focus on a key difference, since it could shape the future.

Finding similarities is no trivial matter. It pays to know that populists can emerge from the left as well as the right. It’s useful to be informed they are flourishing around the world, not just in Europe and the US. If we’re told that democratic deficits and economic disempowerment can all be exploited to create an electorally powerful political movement, then we’re in a better position to tell if rising populism in Malta is a figment of paranoid imagination or the real thing.

If we’re aware that the grievances stoked by populism are often well-founded, then we should know better than to ignore them. If we know that populist solutions are just as often ill-founded and half-baked in the longer run, then it’s our civic responsibility not to be complacent. A disappointed-but-powerful movement is volatile and can turn ugly.

However, differences between one country and another matter as well. They tell us about particular dynamics which make each society distinctive.

Here is one striking difference between Malta and the rest of Europe, where populism in usually rides on the back of a major problem. Maltese populism does not thrive on the same major problems that gnaw at the body politic elsewhere.

Irregular immigration or struggling economies or both lie behind populism in Italy, France and Germany, for example. Hungary and Poland have mild economic growth and no real immigration problem, yet there are real fears being stoked about both.

In Turkey, the decisive turn towards strongman politics came in 2013, when economic growth dropped to a four-year low (even though growth was still significant) and opposition in civil society began to pose a serious threat to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s electoral popularity.

Malta does not follow this pattern. Economic growth and unemployment are at record levels. Irregular immigration attracts attention because of the hard line the government takes against it. Labour, the political party most adept at whipping up populist anger (even if the PN is no slouch), is the one actually legitimising the neo-liberal labour market. Sometimes Joseph Muscat even waxes about cosmopolitanism.

Ordinarily, this important absence might be taken as a sign that Maltese populism has been greatly exaggerated. But there are too many other tell-tale signs. Critics are called whores and traitors. Independent institutions are stacked with minions. Law has been weaponised against opponents. Power is centralised and personalised.

Above all, online wolf packs are organised by the political party in power to whip up a frenzy against their chosen target. Critics are intimidated online rather than outside their homes. Elsewhere in Europe, the connection of such wolf packs to political parties is strongly suspected but as yet unproven; in Malta it’s been proven by this website’s investigations.

The names of the several secret groups are branded Labour. The leaders are party activists, some of whom are on the public payroll. Until they were caught out, Joseph Muscat and Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca were both members, and there can be no doubt that their names functioned to legitimise these groups in activist circles and even help recruitment.

Yet Muscat got away simply with a withdrawal from these groups. No one demanded of the Labour leader whether he considered them to corrupt his party’s brand. Apart from Simon Busuttil in Parliament, no one demanded that he denounce them publicly, let alone to fire the public officials responsible.

The watchdogs, in their overwhelming majority, didn’t bark. It shows a higher tolerance for intimidation in Malta even among those whose very profession is to safeguard liberal democracy.

We have this aggressive populism in flourishing economic conditions. What will happen when, inevitably, growth begins to slow down? Will the populism get worse when the safeguards are even weaker and the soaring inequality is worse?

The European Commission’s projections suggest that Malta’s growth will begin to slow down noticeably by next year, while inflation will inch up. If there is a major international economic downturn, things will be worse. A disorderly Brexit or Chinese slump will have wider reverberations, as would the US cyclical decline that some experts are anticipating in around two years.

If these projections are roughly true, the political incentives for a raising of the populist temperature will coincide with Malta’s next general election season. All the right incentives will be there for the political opposition, not just Labour.

An economic slowdown will stoke the rising grievances about inequality, housing, and the labour market. We may well find out that, thus far, Maltese populism has simply been in training.

Malta’s thriving economy tells me that our current populism has significant potential for expansion. Our higher tolerance for intimidation of individuals tells me we risk shedding our complacency only when it’s too late.

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