The Economist Intelligence Unit relegated Malta to “a flawed democracy”. Since its inception in 2006, the Unit’s annual index ranked Malta a full democracy. But Labour messed up.
How did Malta lose its democratic credentials so rapidly?
In 2002, Steven Levitsky, Harvard University associate professor published a seminal article: ‘The rise of competitive authoritarianism’. It outlined how the initial optimism of the post-Cold War world swiftly dissipated as developing nations combined authoritarian governance with democratic rule in the 1990s. Rather than embarking on the road to full democracy, many remained hybrids of authoritarianism and democracy.
These states were labelled “semi-democracies”, or euphemistically “electoral democracies”. Or simply “flawed democracies”.
Malta bucked this trend. It pulled itself out of repressive authoritarianism and dangerous alliances with dictators from North Korea, Libya and Romania to restore full democracy.
Led by an inspirational leader it bestowed basic freedoms, laid the foundations for a modern economy and built basic infrastructure. This tiny state aspired to be part of a European Union that treasured human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.
Those hopes were briefly dashed by a short-lived Labour administration. But plans were swiftly back on track when Labour was dumped. Those dreams became reality as Malta joined the EU.
Malta continued to consolidate its full democracy rating. In 2013, Malta embarked on a different path leading to what Levitsky termed “competitive authoritarianism”. The decay in our democracy was not immediately apparent. But the undermining of democratic institutions had commenced.
Malta’s ratings dropped. By 2018 Malta’s rating was 8.21, by 2019, 7.95 and by 2020 Malta was a “flawed democracy”.
In flawed democracies, the government gains power through formal democratic institutions. But it violates rules so often and to such an extent that minimum standards for democracy are not met.
Typically, regimes seriously violate democracy to create an uneven playing field between government and opposition. Although elections are free of massive fraud, the incumbent abuses state resources, denies the opposition adequate media coverage and harasses opposition members and intimidates critics.
This aptly describes Labour. The government is shamelessly using state resources to promote itself – billboards, Infrastructure Malta banners, adverts, tax refunds, church lighting, band club and firework factory funding.
It hijacked the state broadcaster appointing a loyalist Head of News. The imbalance in PBS coverage between Labour and PN is eye-watering. As for harassment and intimidation, Labour is a virtuoso.
Labour’s arch critic was brutally eliminated after suffering years of abuse and dehumanisation. Government critics face intimidation and harassment. Regimes characterised by such abuses cannot be called democratic especially where those abuses are led by government MPs and MEPs and promoted by the Party station.
Competitive authoritarian regimes, rather than openly violating democratic rules, use bribery, co-optation and subtle forms of persecution such as the use of tax authorities and other state agencies to persecute or extort co-operative behaviour from critics. Robert Abela contacted Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty to discuss the taxes of his adversary.
Daphne Caruana Galizia had lamented that “now they have access to all my private information” and they were using it. “Do you feel this is happening now?”, she was asked. “Of course it’s happening,” she replied.
In “flawed democracies” there are four areas through which opposition may at least weaken incumbents.
The first is the electoral arena. But the process cannot be considered free with the incumbent’s large scale abuse of state power, biased media coverage, lack of transparency and harassment of activists.
The second is the legislative arena. Although Labour enjoys a large majority, the opposition can still use parliament for voicing dissent. But their efforts are thwarted by a Speaker who is a government lackey, intent on sparing Labour’s blushes. He refused parliamentary questions on Keith Schembri, Pilatus Bank, the Egrant inquiry, the Daphne Caruana Galizia case, Lawrence Cutajar, Edward Zammit Lewis. He protected Joseph Muscat, Rosianne Cutajar and Carmelo Abela as Standards Committee Chair.
The judicial arena is the third area of contestation. But Labour appointed multiple Party members, including former candidates, MPs or loyalists’ relatives. Some of those nominated were unqualified or barely qualified for the role, entwining them in a web of patronage.
The media is the final arena. In flawed democracies, the incumbent suppresses independent media through bribery, selective allocation of state advertising and manipulation of debt and taxes owed by media outlets. Party stations ONE and Medialink owe over €5 million in unpaid VAT, The Times reported. State advertising, as well as pandemic funds, are disbursed secretly with a complete lack of transparency.
When Labour went too far, massive protests and international repudiation forced Muscat out. This created a golden opportunity to reverse the democratic decay. Robert Abela’s succession did not lead to democratisation.
The early promise – the sacking of police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar, the expulsion of Konrad Mizzi and the forced resignation of Chris Cardona, the snubbing of Neville Gafa – was followed by an intensification of authoritarian practices – defending ministers guilty of ethics breaches, increasing secrecy, repeated refusal of Freedom of Information requests, escalation of divisive rhetoric on the Party station, intensification of harassment of critics and abusive retorts to journalists’ questions.
History provides Malta with some comfort. In countries closely linked to the West, the removal of autocratic incumbents generally resulted in democratisation. After 1990, four out of five competitive authoritarian regimes in Central Europe democratised (Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia and Romania, but not Albania). By contrast in the former Soviet Union, only one regime (Moldova) democratised in the same period.
Malta, fortunately, forms part of the EU. All recent positive developments – the Caruana Galizia inquiry, reforms of the judicial appointment system, prosecution of money launderers, changes in the police leadership – are the direct result of European pressure.
The EU squeezes Labour to reinstate the rule of law, to protect its own citizens and, hopefully, to restore full democracy. EU membership is the fine thread on which our fragile democracy hangs. And we all know who we should thank for that. It’s not Labour.