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Restoration won’t fix flawed democracy

It’s easier to gain five kilos than to lose them. And it’s easier to slide down into the Economist’s ‘flawed democracy’ category than to climb out of it. That creates an important benchmark for Robert Abela.

His opponents can taunt him with our demotion, no matter what he does. But if Malta is promoted, he gets to do the taunting himself. He’ll be able to go into the next general election with momentum.

Protests and civil liberties are fine, Abela has said, but ‘we’ must be allowed to govern. ‘We’ who? In a full democracy, government is by the people for the people. That’s true even if it’s a single Party that’s governing.

The context of Abela’s remark suggests that by ‘we’ he meant Labour. Rhetorically, he can wiggle out of that. But it will be more difficult to fudge the issue when taking decisions – like rewarding a disgraced former police commissioner with a job instead of investigating him.

The public protests were never about which Party governs. That is obviously Labour. The protests were about how we’re governed.

The Economist, Transparency International and others have driven that elementary point home. Democracy is not a vote every five years. It’s a transparent process of open consultation throughout the five years. Other countries do it without sacrificing decisiveness or stability. The league tables show it. The most developed democracies are also the most affluent.

This basic truth clashes with the narrative that Abela and friends have been pushing since Joseph Muscat’s resignation. The narrative says that the Party has nothing to be ashamed of; Labour has been as much a victim of corruption and State-capture as much as anyone else.

The problem was a few bad apples, plus some cheap opportunists who used to support the Nationalists in the past. During the leadership campaign, Abela responded to Labour grassroots demand by (effectively) promising a purge and a restoration of ‘how we were’ back in October.

He knows, of course, that The Economist thinks poorly of ‘how we were’ six months ago. Transparency’s corruption perception index gives us a score as bad as the lowest point of a year ago. A ‘restoration’ would keep us a flawed democracy.

So, the narrative has a forward-looking dimension. We are told Labour will embark on reforms that the Nationalists never did anything about in 25 years.

The argument, factually, isn’t a good one. For 15 of those years, the PN-led governments had their hands full with other reforms, needed to secure EU membership. With Labour blaming the quest for membership for those reforms, the PN governments had to be selective in what battles they took on.

But the point isn’t whether the argument is fair. Abela is cleverly framing the rule of law reforms in competitive terms. Introducing these reforms won’t seem like a list of concessions that Labour had previously resisted. The reforms will be projected as points scored against the adversary.

It’s a neat narrative but there are two complications. One is how to draw the line between clientelism and cronyism. The Labour narrative is that the problem was the latter – ”over-friendliness with business”. But clientelism is still seen as an aspect of a ‘listening government’.

The business community, however, has moved on from last year, where a financial services conference blamed Malta’s reputational problems on “perceptions”, which according to one prominent speaker could be resolved by getting to the bottom of the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.

We know now how merely inching towards the bottom of that atrocity has exacerbated our reputational problem.

The Chamber of Commerce is now, therefore, insisting on clear, transparent rules of good governance, including a register for lobbyists. It doesn’t want business ”friendliness”, cronyism based on personal relationships with specific politicians. It wants business fairness.

None of this is necessarily a problem for Abela. But it is a complication. His government will have to learn a new modus operandi that could seriously affect clientelism, not just cronyism.

The second, more important complication is that the business sector is insisting on an investigation of all suspect public contracts. Those would include every journalistic investigation that was pooh-poohed by some current ministers and the Labour propaganda machine as the fruit of partisan malice.

A long fuse has been lit. It’s difficult to avoid conducting these investigations thoroughly. Anything less would smack of a cover-up. The purgatory of ‘flawed democracy’ will continue, this time on Abela’s watch.

But undertaking these investigations well could see an important Labour boundary crossed. So far, Muscat has been beyond serious criticism in the official narrative. Virtually every minister has gone along with Muscat’s self-portrait as a sacrificial victim. However, thorough investigations of the power station deal and VGH hospitals deal could destroy that picture.

What would happen then to the narrative of victimhood? Ordinary Labour activists and supporters would remain real victims. But now they would seem victims of their former leadership. It would have cynically exploited their loyalty.

The machine filled them with rage against the wrong people.

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