It used to be a clash of the titans. Now, the confrontation between our political leaders often seems like a clash of midgets. What went wrong?
The national leadership crisis is expressed, in the Nationalist Party, as tragedy. Right now, hardly anyone thinks it’s worth running for a leadership post.
In Labour, the crisis is expressed as farce. Robert Abela takes credit for reversing greylisting — as though it didn’t take place on his watch. The justice minister is advised by a man who helped bring Maltese justice into disrepute. The construction industry regulator works for the most notorious developer. Next, we’ll see Dracula put in charge of the blood bank.
The fact that our leaders are failing us is obvious. The explanation is more elusive. One popular reason given is that, these days, leaders are just out to serve themselves. Another is that they are not leaders but puppets, manipulated by hidden hands.
A third reason blames it on the general degradation of the world — the coming heat death of the universe, if you like. Everything is getting worse, the world’s temperatures are rising, and we’re feeling it even in the hot air blowing from the political corner.
Such explanations, focused on individual sins, don’t explain nearly enough. Self-serving leaders are hardly new to the scene. Past leaders were also accused of being babies or playthings.
And moralists have been complaining of degradation for a long time. Both Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami were accused of damaging the political fabric.
To see our leaders’ failings in strictly personal terms misses a paradox: these disappointing leaders are the first in our political history to be elected by the full membership of their respective parties.
Since 2017, with Adrian Delia’s election as PN leader, they were chosen by a much wider voter base than their predecessors, and the legacy and new media played an important role in their election.
It was a good performance on Xarabank that saw Abela decisively surpass his rival, Chris Fearne, during the 2020 Labour leadership election. It was Bernard Grech’s appearances in the media (including Xarabank) that gave him better polling numbers than other elected PN politicians, which helped him become the candidate to challenge the sitting leader, Delia.
The paradox: the leaders who seem most diminutive are the ones elected with the largest personal mandate in their respective Party’s history.
The reason, I think, is this. What drove those Party members to vote (and to sign up to earn that vote) was an anti-leadership sentiment, not hero-worship. In each election, the winner was the less known, less experienced candidate.
The point is much clearer with respect to the PN leadership elections. In 2017, the winner, Adrian Delia, was the man that his predecessor, Simon Busuttil, didn’t want. In 2020, Grech beat the serving leader.
The sentiment, however, was also present in Labour’s 2020 election. Fearne, who lost, was endorsed by most Cabinet ministers. It’s true that Abela was privately supported by Joseph Muscat, the outgoing leader. But the members’ vote was an action against the candidate assumed, not least in the media, to be the favourite.
The anti-leadership sentiment was more present in the PN than Labour, which explains why the PN leadership is under more pressure. But we shouldn’t discount the pressure that Labour’s leadership is under.
A wider democratic base is inherently an idea that dilutes the power of centralised control. It disperses it among people who might even be semi-detached from the Party. To have a mandate from such an electorate is a mixed blessing.
For one thing, you need more money to run. Precisely because the vote is dispersed, you need to spend more for your message to break through. If you win, you enter your role beholden to donors in the wings.
For another, winning on the back of a wide vote authorises you to be a transformative leader. But the first thing you need to transform is the practice of leadership itself.
You cannot attain the glory of past leaders by imitating them. Do that and you will always seem a pale shadow. The power the old leaders commanded has a different structure now. It cannot be wielded the same way.
Today, leaders have both more power and less. They know more about us; the unscrupulous even have unauthorised private data.
But we have more on them — photos taken at unguarded moments, recordings, leaked documents and Facebook indiscretions by supporters. Perhaps the one thing that Daphne Caruana Galizia got wrong about Panamagate was that, in 2016, she believed the leak was a rare fluke. Not any more.
The point here isn’t only that familiarity breeds contempt. Or that leaders inevitably seem smaller when the news cycle is too fast for them to keep up with.
Trying to lead the old way, when everything else has changed — your own voters, journalism, civil society, the private and public spheres — is a recipe for looking like a marionette. What you do looks like playacting, not action.
If you have enough money to buy people off, like Abela, then you can extend your political lifespan until the swag lasts. But it won’t build up your authority.
Thinking you can shut out journalists in an age of leaks; believing a political party is at the top of the hierarchy when you’re operating in an egalitarian society; expecting Leninist Party discipline when you’re elected by members who are semi-detached… To do all this is to misread where power lies and misunderstand how it can be mobilised. And, therefore, obviously, you’re going to fail the very people who elected you.
Some of the failure is personal. But it also arises out of the dilemmas of a particular society. The politicians don’t come across as meaningful because they can’t keep up with the meaning of the social changes all around them.