Civil society: flourishing opuntia? - Benjamin Dalli
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Civil society: flourishing opuntia? - Benjamin Dalli

The opuntia ficus-indica may have originated several time zones away, yet the prickly pear, an alien species, found itself pasted on the emblem of Malta for over a decade. To the reckless passer-by, the cactus is a threat. For the wiser rambler, it can be a summertime treat. 

Civil society was introduced to Malta formally shortly after Independence.

Today, hundreds of voluntary organisations are registered with the commissioner. It is dubious whether this indicates that civil society has flourished akin to our beloved flora.

Malta has been doing pretty well for itself, at least prima facie. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Malta among the world’s healthiest democracies – quite a feat for a country of its age, size and history. Century after century, the Maltese people were subjugated to some other ruler; none was known for their democratic credentials – bar Britain.

Yet among full democracies, Malta trails behind in political participation. The factors assessed included adult literacy, voter turnout and party political membership, arguably the three strongest points keeping Malta afloat in the area. 

Evidently, that isn’t enough. 

Politics is still considered a taboo across the board, preventing citizens from engaging more openly with it, or participating at all.

The million-dollar question is why. If, despite the numerous NGOs, Maltese civil society has not yet matured to match the likes of the nations further up on the list, then a diagnosis might need to be sought. 

Civil society might serve a continual social function. In other cases, it might campaign for an issue by raising awareness to instigate change, usually at a legislative level. It follows that civil society is thus a mediator between society and government. 

Total delineation does not make sense, so a relationship ought to be maintained. Animosity between the two raises questions about underlying and potentially fundamental issues about the role of the two and whether one is accommodating the other.

Having numerous NGOs is not conclusive evidence of a bustling civil society. China, an authoritarian state, fosters NGOs in its largest cities. Their role is largely local, supporting their communities in issues like education and well-being. China works closely with them, as does Malta. 

But this might not score Malta highly on another of the EIU’s factors, which is whether “authorities make a serious effort to promote political participation”. 

Arguably, the opposite is true. 

A broad definition of civil society is the collection of NGOs, institutions and citizens, independent of the government or business interests, there to service some sort of public exigency. By definition, partisan interference is ruled out. A protest called by a political party already plays on the fringes of its scope.

Protesting is premised on the idea that it is addressed to those in power. Having the same official figures carry the frontal banner is contradictory. If a group was protesting for more stringent and effective laws, it wouldn’t make sense for the Prime Minister to be “protesting” alongside them.

As it stands, local protests have little clout unless a politician is present. Their attendance should not be a legitimising factor. 

Local protests have little clout unless a politician is present. Their attendance should not be a legitimising factor

If desirable dialogue between the two actors isn’t channelled differently, the lines between the two blur to the effect that government rubber stamps any political action happening outside its remit.

The remarkable spike in civic activism in 2018 provides good grounds for study. 

Environmentalism has been present in Malta for as long as our Constitution has been in force, but it is probably the first time since then that extra-partisan groups have taken to the streets. They have caught the imagination of commentators and have been subject to the scrutiny of analysts. 

Corruption was the primary issue, aptly coupled with correlating polls that placed corruption as one of the top concerns among Maltese citizens. The environment dragged along too, although left dreaming of attaining the same turnout as a vigil for Daphne Caruana Galizia.

No prizes for guessing that the government would rather anti-corruptions protests don’t happen anymore. Its continued effort to drown out non-partisan dissenting voices and elude the press casts a shadow on Malta’s democratic credentials especially in light of its political participation. 

The principal question is whether civil society will produce a healthy output of public protests throughout 2019. 

Singapore, a flawed democracy and rich country on whose model Malta seems to be following, has an identical score when it comes to political participation. In consolidating its power, the People’s Action Party cracked down on media freedom, stifled civil society’s maturation and choked competing political parties. If this is anything to go by, Maltese political freedoms are not going to be improving any time soon.

The seed for independent civic development and engagement has been sown in Malta, and the flowers of public participation blossomed. Like the opuntia ficus-indica, they were prickly, particularly in the side of the Prime Minister and his ambitions abroad. 

They were also an effective way of shedding light on corruption and aided international bodies in flagging constitutional issues. 

Activists had to work hard not to be extinguished by the established powers. But without expertise and a more constructive state, their capability of maturing without conscious efforts is doubtful.

Benjamin Dalli is a law student at the University of Glasgow.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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