Back in my student activism days, and anyone involved like me can relate, I was faced with the pertinent question; "but why do you do this?". This was often coupled with other statements such as activism being a waste of time or no use (read hope).
Admittedly, there were instances where the lingering thought told me they could be correct, and I almost gave in. However, when I got back together with my colleagues or attended an event of another organisation, the belief that I am on the right track regained its dominance. The same feeling ensued whenever thanks to an intervention made by myself, my organisation, or co-operation with others, some students or individuals stood to gain. Honestly, in any form of activism, or politics if you may, there is no better feeling than people appreciating you helping them.
This brings me to the point I would like to push forward in these few paragraphs.
If I were to say that politics in Malta inspires youths to be involved, I would arguably be the most deluded person in the country. This is a feeling that has grown deeper in our society over the past years or so, with scandal after scandal, uninspiring politicians offering little substance, constant bickering in Parliament and outside. Finally, the public sphere leaves much to be desired due to partisan politics' prevalence over the common good. These factors, and more, all play a role in reducing the courage to vote, let alone participate in the political field.
Like my time as a student, as someone who is somewhat optimistic (at times maybe too much), I am often confronted by peers doubting why valid people should leap into politics. It is fair to say that given the country's climate, the statement is more than legitimate. The problem here is not the game but its players. With Ministers sending messages to alleged criminals such as: “I miss you”, there is much to be desired. A few years back, I had the opportunity to interview former Prime Minister Dr Lawrence Gonzi, and there he told me something that still resonates in my mind whenever I think of the subject. His reply to the question of why valid people should enter politics was eloquent and straightforward:
“In politics, there is never an empty seat. Whenever valid people are pushed away from politics, their seat will be taken up immediately, irrespective of whether that person would be fit for purpose or not."
This reasoning makes a lot of sense in the Maltese context, but the issue is much more complex than we might think. There are several factors at play that are combining to create a perfect storm for the wrong people to thrive. This leads us to a situation where the people keen to participate are limited, giving the electorate little choice when electing our representatives. This system stems from clientelism and finds much comfort in the country's culture of partisanship, where leaders are given a godly status. Party loyalty is at times rooted in a family's culture.
Indeed, objectivity is a lonely place in Malta.
I will go one step further from the now iconic 'courage to vote' line and say that this is the time that a generation needs to stand up to be counted. We need more than the courage to vote.
Taking the case of Hon. Edward Zammit Lewis as a prime example; we should all be raging. Not only did he seek the constant approval of an alleged mastermind of the darkest chapter of Malta's history, but in that process, he ridiculed the Maltese electorate, only to then seek its vote. We cannot be the society that accepts these comments as the truth. People who treat the voters like Zammit Lewis should not have a place in Parliament – but the power to send that message lies in our hands.
Tying back to the ‘courage to vote’, I believe that we are now being called to showcase the courage to participate. Unfortunately, the dominant practice amongst youths tends to be passivity, although the protests of November 2019 augured well in terms of civil society mobilising itself when enough was enough. I understand it when people my age opt out of the option to participate. An environment where what-aboutism, clientelism and cynicism thrive undoubtedly pushes people away. Regrettably, the example being set for us is not ideal. We are now finding ourselves with people obsessed about serving (not in the correct way) their constituents, PR campaigns and terrified at the prospect of shouldering responsibility, with government scandals becoming the order of the day in recent years. The objective is not for the country to do well but for the party to look good.
The fixation of mentioning the opposing party in every statement is childish at best. People are not asked to think or ask questions; they are asked to believe and repeat. The problem is not the political parties but those who are there to abuse the system. Let me be clear; some politicians are well-intentioned and more than valid representatives. However, most of their practices are intoxicating society, as the prime tactic is more often than not dismissive of opposing ideas, shying away from a mature debate.
This is precisely why we need a different, mature way of doing politics. Voter rationality in Malta is indeed a myth. More people need the courage to step up and change the way things are done. Nobody has all the answers, but we certainly need to do more in an environment where ideas are shot down simply because they originate from an opposing party.
Politics is not the bickering we see on Parliament TV or what-aboutism. Politics is not corruption or doing everything possible to gain as much money as quickly as possible. Politics is not clientelism or ego trips. Politics is neither painting everything rosy nor doomed.
In my view, politics is a force of good that exists to serve the best interest of the common good and the country's best interest. The interests of the party or the individual should not play a role in decision-making. The minute that they do, the process becomes flawed, as do the results.
The courage to vote, especially under these circumstances, is crucial. We cannot tolerate the fact that a State is found guilty of creating a culture of impunity that allowed for the assassination of one of us. When the news broke, the first thought to come to our minds should have been – never again. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what role we played in that same culture of impunity. Were we too submissive to the information we were being fed? Did we not care enough to call a spade a spade until one of us was taken away in the most macabre of ways – just because she dared to ask the questions we should all have been asking?
We cannot shy away from being critical and objective, neither ourselves nor the political parties we support. Constructively criticising or demanding more of our representatives is neither a negative trait nor an act of betrayal to 'our party'. Many might perceive the country's political reality as bleak at times, but we must play our role well.
As citizens of a nation and of this world, we all have a role to play. Demanding rights while abdicating our responsibilities is futile.
I conclude by saying this; in a few years, I, and many others, will have the opportunity to look my children in the eye and recount the historic moments that shaped Maltese history. I want to make sure that I tell them a story that makes them proud. I will want to say to them that I stood up when it counted - for them to have a better country to live in.
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