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Maltese political debate has come of age. It’s now a matter of party leaders announcing proposti (proposals) in the morning, and cherry-picked candidates debating them in the evening. We’ve always wished for our politicians to drop the bokkli and victory signs and concentrate instead on making and discussing substantial policy proposals. The bonus is it all looks very civilised, modern, and European.

I would suggest we largely ignore the proposals and evaluate the proponents
- Mark Anthony Falzon

Except it’s mostly rubbish. Around this time five years ago we were being bombarded with reams of glossy paper listing one and the other’s proposti. A pair of leaflets I remember well told of 10 grand projects for the harbour area by Labour, 20 by the Nationalists. That particular line of thought seems to have fallen out of fashion. Instead we now have the power stations, the interconnector, the tablets, and so on.

I’m saying that electoral manifestos that consist of lists of proposals are mostly useless, for two reasons. First, they almost invariably tend to degenerate into one monumental auction sale. In the case of Malta it’s usually a tit-for-tat between the two big parties as they fall over one another trying to spring the right proposta at the right time.

Given these circumstances, most of the proposti are likely to fit into two categories: barmy and barmier. Take last week’s tablet war. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to give away tablets to Year 4 schoolchildren as a kind of one-off gift. It all sounds like one giant marketing ploy and likely to put children off the little time they may have left with books and quiet thought.

No prize tablets for guessing that giving away the same to all children is even less of a good idea. Incidentally, that’s the North Korea approach to computing – hand out a bunch of free hardware and proceed to call the country a silicon paradise. But no matter, what counts in the proposti see-saw is being on top at all times.

The second reason why proposti are what they are is that five years is a long time. There’s little knowing what fortune will bring in terms of social transformation, the economy and such, between now and 2018. What that means is that all the fine print and clever costings will likely be as long-lived as a blood pudding in Dracula’s fridge.

All of which leaves us with a bit of a problem. If electoral manifestos and proposti are so much pot-boiling fiction, how are we to decide who to vote for?

My answer has nothing to do with plucking petals off a daisy or tossing coins. Rather, I would suggest we largely ignore the proposals and evaluate the proponents.

I honestly think that political evaluation should be ad hominem. I am more likely to vote for a person who somehow feels right, with or without a long list of carefully-costed proposals, than I am for someone who shows up all technical babble but looking odd in their skin.

That raises some interesting questions. For example, on the basis of which criteria does one decide that a politician feels right? Certainly there are a host of predisposing factors: class signifiers, gender, and so on.

And of course, party allegiance and endorsement, which make Nationalist politicians feel right to Nationalists and Labour politicians to Labourites. That explains why a number of decidedly intriguing characters still go on to hoover up stacks of votes.

Still, elections are not lost and won simply on demographics. It would therefore seem that significant numbers of voters do actually weigh up the personalities. And that’s exactly where proposti begin to matter, as a means to an end. In the process of presenting and discussing them, politicians end up telling us quite a bit about who they are.

Take the recent Xarabank debate. If we must, I think Joseph Muscat ‘won’ it hands down. Muscat must be the first ever television-friendly Labour leader, and he managed to appear infinitely more at ease than the Prime Minister.

I thought Lawrence Gonzi seemed irritated, as if he were asking himself why there should be an election at all, given all the great things his government had done. His slogan on the night appeared to be ‘Prime Minister at work, please do not disturb’.

Speaking for myself, that stuck. The actual content of the debate didn’t. Hand on heart, I had my last drink two hours ago and I still can’t remember how much the interconnector will cost.

Muscat does, in fact, sport a tremendous Achilles’ heel as far as feeling right is concerned. He’s at his best when discussing proposti (he tends to look focused, matter-of-fact, and trustworthy) and at his most unbearably dismal when he slips into his Malta tagħna lkoll stock rhetoric: Eddie Fenech Adami was great, tribalism must end, Nationalists will one day celebrate Jum il-Ħelsien, his family is mixed, and so on: it all sounds so false, so put on (apart from a battalion of logical flaws and historical errors).

If readers will allow me a platitude, an effective politician is measured by the wisdom of their decisions. The best way to figure out how wise a politician is, is to have a long hard look at them and ask questions such as, What are the chances they will make the right decision if – or rather when – the costings go wrong? What sort of post-campaign decisions can we expect from this sort of person? Is the gut feeling one of trust and stability?

Form rather than content? Certainly, especially since the latter tends to follow.

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