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Whither democracy?

Democracy may involve more than a process through which a society is governed. It may well be, as John Dewey highlighted, a whole way of life. Yet, the former is still a fundamental way in which the demos (people) rule themselves.

We must be aware of the illness if we are to seek a cure
- Michael Grech

In a representative and elective democracy, elections are supposed to be the manner in which people ultimately govern themselves. Assumptions behind the practice of voting and universal franchise are that the ordinary citizen is able to make rational, disinterested and proper decisions and choices.

Lino Spiteri’s article A Star Has Been Christened (December 3) is disquieting in this regard. The article praises the qualities of the newly-elected Nationalist deputy leader, noting that Simon Busuttil has been highly successful in the various posts he occupied by, among other things, ‘promoting himself, nurturing his personality’.

Among the successes the article indicates, some should raise important questions, as Spiteri’s claim that Busuttil made his utmost “to disseminate information as part of the team promoting the (European) Union, and, thereby, membership, to the Maltese electorate”. (Shouldn’t he have been an impartial provider of information – a role subsidised by our taxes, including those who were against membership – leaving the promotion of membership to others?)

Yet, what ought to raise major concern’s Mr Spiteri’s timely warning that Labour should be concerned about Busuttil’s ability to the turn the popular vote in his party’s favour despite the current gap between the two parties that the opinion polls suggest. After all, this is a trick the PN used time and again.

In the last election, the new man was GonziPN himself. It was suggested that, though Lawrence Gonzi was already the Prime Minister, the Administration that disappointed many was not really ‘his’ and, hence, he should be given the opportunity to have his own government. We all know how things turned out.

Yet, what I find worrying is not this fact in itself but the reasons Spiteri cites to back his claim that Busuttil may turn the election in his party’s favour, namely his “charisma and popularity”. That a journalist of Spiteri’s calibre might believe that “charisma and popularity” may persuade some 10 per cent of the electorate to either cast a vote they intended not to cast or to vote for one party rather than another is highly disturbing because this belief might actually be correct. And this is not disturbing because these votes would swing the election one way rather than another.

At schools we misleadingly teach young citizens that electoral democracy is a process wherein voters think, assesses various alternatives and make choices according to what they believe is best for society.

They should not or are not supposed to assess their options in terms of charisma and popularity but of ideals, ideas and successful/unsuccessful governance.

Moreover, they are not supposed to assess a whole Administration in relation to the charisma and fame of one individual (in this case, an individual who is not event a member of this Administration). Yet, assertions like the one by Spiteri induce me to believe that all this is utter gibberish.

But even if rationality and good judgement were Busuttil’s major characteristics, Spiteri’s claim would still be highly disturbing. Malta is supposed to be a democracy, not a monarchy. An individual, albeit occupying a major position, is still part of a team. His role and ability should be assessed in relation to that team, not the other way round. As many stated in relation to the Franco Debono crisis, one primarily votes for the party, not the individual.

Spiteri’s possibly correct belief about Busuttil’s ability to affect the result of the next election is not the only indicator that our democracy is terribly malfunctioning.

That at least 80 per cent of the popular votes are ‘blocked’ (each party, regardless of how uninspiring or badly performing it might be, will at least garner 40 per cent of the popular votes) is a definite indicator that rationality and objective assessment do not really feature in the pre-electoral pondering of the vast majority of the electorate.

That electors might fall in for a generous 11th hour Budget, a spate of pre-election promotions and promises of various kinds indicates that if the philosophy behind the democratic process assumes that people are rational creatures, the Government believes otherwise. The silly poster campaign by both parties then, with the even more insulting caveat of a press conference wherein the simple and simplistic messages contained in the poster are ‘explained’ to the public (are we really that stupid?) represent a new low reached in the current electoral campaign.

(Regarding these posters, one Nationalist picture attempts to confute Labour’s attempt to project Joseph Muscat as a leader belonging to a new generation of politicians – itself a rhetorical exercise that relies on image rather than content - by referring to old faces still on the party’s tickets. But shouldn’t the same reasoning apply to Busuttil? Will not the PN ticket contain members of the current Administration and protégé’s of others that are not contesting?)

So there are ample signs that democracy is in crisis. Unfortunately, considering what is going on in Europe and the West, one becomes conscious that ours is not an isolated case. At this point, the question that is normally asked is: admitting these shortcomings, should we forsake democracy for something else? No we should not. We should, however, at least, be aware of the illness. Only then we might seek a cure.

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