There’s general agreement that, following the 2013 general election, Maltese politics has followed a logic that defied expectations of how things should work out. Electoral results, the sheer scale and number of scandals, their impact, the nerve of the ruling Party, the demoralisation of the Opposition — all have beggared belief.
There’s reason to think, however, that the period of this unusual logic has come to a close. We will look back at this new year as the beginning of a new kind of decade. Years always begin on 1 January but decades and centuries do not necessarily follow the Gregorian calendar.
Formally, the 20th century began on 1 January 1900 (or 1901 if you’re a pedant); the 21st began 100 years later. But that’s not how historians calculate it. The 20th century was intense but short. It began in 1917 — with the breakup of the Austro-Habsburg and Ottoman empires, and the transformation of the Russian empire into the USSR — and ended in 1991, with the formal break-up of the USSR.
The 21st century then began, a period of economic and political mania. The US enjoyed a decade of being the supreme power of a unipolar world, globalisation was seen as an unmitigated blessing and, by the middle of the 1990s, an internet economic bubble was in full swing.
The EU read the fall of communism as ushering in a renewed flowering of European power. European ‘soft power’ was seen as an avant-garde model for global politics.
The first decade of the 2000s arguably began late and ended prematurely. The 9/11 terrorist attacks jolted the US out of its illusions. The 2008 financial crisis and the election of a historic candidate, Barack Obama, brought the decade to a close for the US.
In historical terms, decades are marked by the events that organise our memory of them. The “Sixties”, as culturally understood in the US and continental Europe, are really 1967-69. The “Eighties”, in Malta, are really 1977-87.
And, arguably, the new year that began yesterday closed a decade that, in Malta, began in 2012.
That was the year that captures a crucial transition in how we understand events. That year it became clear that the Gonzi government was dying a slow death and that a Labour government led by Joseph Muscat was just a matter of time. The way we judged events seems, 10 years on, a lifetime ago.
Towards the end of 2011, a student could still publicly call a government minister, Austin Gatt, a “fucking wanker” (in his presence) and later refer obscenely to his late mother on Facebook. Fancy that today.
Gatt was then considered the epitome of “government arrogance” (he didn’t suffer fools gladly) but nothing happened to that student. She wasn’t even trolled (even after it turned out that her attack was planned). Fancy that.
It was in 2012 that a PN strategy group meeting was told that, if current polls were to be believed, the PN stood to lose the next election with a deficit of 20,000 votes. I’m told that most people at that meeting refused to believe such a cataclysm could really happen. Fancy that.
In 2012, parliament voted (with the connivance of PN MPs with axes to grind) to express no confidence in a government minister and in Malta’s Permanent Representative to the EU. Both resigned immediately. Fancy that.
At that time, Labour MPs still insisted on the supremacy of parliament and on government transparency…
So 2012 is a year where we can glimpse a vanished world in its last embers. There were different standards and expectations in force. If we don’t have them today, it’s not because we’re still “maturing” as a democracy. It’s because we’ve been regressing for a decade.
What followed was a decade of mania. The 2013 election marks a point where many people lost their confidence in reading society and culture correctly. Others came to believe that Malta was free of the economic laws of gravity — the term “Muscatonomics” was seriously proposed as a model (like “Thatcherism” or “Reaganomics”).
Anything the Labour government did could be called “progress”, without (barring some exceptions) real challenge. Passports and hospitals could be sold without a ripple. A power station could be built on obviously corrupt foundations. Massive favours could be granted before a general election, including promotions for half the army, without anyone blinking an eye. Scandals knocked out the public, not the government.
In 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination meant many Maltese thought they had lost their country, not just their leading investigative journalist. But it wasn’t the end of the decade. Nor was Muscat’s resignation two years ago.
The decade ended yesterday. The US is now warning it expects prosecutions on the key projects of “Muscatonomics”. Steward Health Care is in court claiming that the hospitals deal it inherited is corrupt. The government can no longer control its overspending. It faces a ballooning deficit.
Labour promises yet more “progress” and probably will win the general election with a landslide. But it cannot offer real progress without reversing its own policies. And it cannot reverse its own policies without losing its united front and important segments of its core support.
It might not be the Opposition that will test Labour. But real-world developments will. They already are: the US, with its veiled threats; the impact of greylisting; the closing of the Overton windows for gaming and financial services. Above all, people’s confidence in reading their own society is returning.
How things will unfold will not be simple. It will not be the way we expect. The future never is. But the decade of mania is over. The bursting of the bubble beckons.