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Let’s have a civilised debate, please

The next general election campaign, now already under way, seems to promise an unprecedented dege-neration in ethical behaviour. Some respected independent opinionists have already expressed their concern about this.

Those of my age could recall hotly contested elections such as those of 1955, 1962, 1971, 1976, 1987 and the referendums of 1956 and 1964, where behaviour of some politicians and supporters (more often than not, prompted by the party machines) were far from commendable. Violence and terror tactics were also not unknown.

Why is the current election different? The reasons could be many and various. However, I could put my fingers on at least two reasons. The first is the feeling that this election is of particular significance.

A cliffhanger, if ever there was one; even a life and death issue for both main parties – at least from the point of view of the respective strategists and top officials of the parties concerned. In such a scenario the lions in the arena will go straight for the jugular.

The second reason is the existence of blogs. Although some of these were already in existence in 2003 and 2008, the current election promises to be even more intensive in this regard. The number of blogs and bloggers has grown and they have become even more un­restrained in the content they transmit over the web.

Even newspaper blogs are not immune to this new phenomenon.

Many bloggers enter into the personal lives of ordinary people as well as prominent, and not so prominent, personalities, often with the direct intention of destroying their credibility (and in consequence even of those associated with them, particularly their families). Some bloggers even degenerate into hate blogs. Political parties, more often than not, have turned a blind eye on these bloggers with the excuse that they have no control or jurisdiction over them.

The ensuing rumour machinery (so potent in our small and closed community) helps to propagate further where the internet does not reach. And so a vicious circle is created that makes such bloggers seemingly immune to any type of control, officially or unofficially.

There is a famous true story from World War I that illustrates the way the ordinary citizen often thinks against those who are supposed to lead him. It was Christmas Day 1914 and, along the Western Front, parties of German, British and French soldiers without authorisation began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs across the trenches.

Many of the soldiers eventually ventured into the so-called ‘no man’s land’ where they mingled with their enemies and exchanged food, drinks and souvenirs.

The respective army commanders were aghast. In France, the Government quickly issued an order stating that further fraternity with the enemy would constitute a treasonable offence. The German and British Governments quickly followed suit. The short truce was, however, symbolic of the fact that amid the violent events around them these ordinary soldiers from opposing forces were mindful of the need for reconciliation – that the other side was not less human than their own. To their leaders this was tantamount to a treasonable act.

Aggression needs a continuous doze of detestation. Winning can only be achieved by depicting your opponent as always malevolent and ill-intentioned.

Pope Benedict XV begged for an official truce between the warring nations. “Let the guns fall silent at least for one night when the angels sang,” he begged.

He was unceremoniously rebuffed by the politicians and the army high command of the countries concerned in the great conflict.

We are unfortunately a divided nation, and have been so for generations past. Shall we go on like this forever? Do we need to tear ourselves apart in the process of an election that always produces an almost equal result in terms of opposing numbers? Is there no civilised manner in which the election can be conducted?

I heard the notion stated from a prominent politician that the best line of defence is attack. It may indeed be that in the short term, but what about the long-term effects of a continuous campaign of acrimonious attack on the psychology of the nation as a whole? In a small country like Malta where the underlying benefits of religious, racial and cultural harmony already exist, the main dividing issues between us always seem political in origin.

Let the opposing issues be declared and debated with vigour and conviction but let us not degenerate into base and demeaning accusations, especially those of a personal nature that are meant to destroy a person’s life and that of those dependant on him.

The campaign should not be a slurring match reminiscent of fight between competing harlots. We are still in time to address this serious issue (perhaps through agreed terms of good conduct between all those concerned before the campaign officially starts on January 7).

It may be a far-fetched dream much like the current supposed political truce during Christmas time, but why not give it a try?

It might be the first small step towards national reconciliation without the need of foregoing civilised political rivalry as a healthy symptom in a democratic society.

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