There is nothing I dread so much as the division of our republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution. One would ideally expect the ruling and opposition party to work together for the future of Malta. Sadly, though, it appears that currently, the Maltese independent media is carrying out the role of the opposition party.
Over the last six decades, theoretically, there has been some progress towards institutionalising multiparty democracy in Malta. Not only, but we have even had elections resulting in changes of government. We have not had a change in government, however, for the last decade and any possible change of government seems very remote in the present circumstances in which the Nationalist party and even other parties find themselves.
The frequent surveys conducted by local independent sources shed some light on why this is the case. The results show that opposition parties face major obstacles to winning majority support. These include the fact that they are not trusted as much as the governing party and that very often they are not seen as a viable alternative to the dominant ruling party. Though the incumbent Labour government may appear to have lost some electoral support in recent years, opposition support has not been high enough to unseat it. The Nationalist party has been having the lowest levels of popular trust ever.
The division of our republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other, is the greatest political evil under our constitution.
This dramatic reversal of fortune provides an important lesson for the opposition. First, perhaps the opposition was unable to leverage its role in stabilising the country when it was governing it. Secondly, infighting and increasing fractionalisation may have further shaped public opinion about its viability as a party. This, coupled with a lack of good governance experience, makes it difficult for the opposition party to be seen as a credible alternative government. Furthermore, I would add that minor public dissatisfaction with government performance does not necessarily translate into perceptions that opposition parties could do a better job.
What role should opposition parties play?
Primarily, to monitor and criticise the government in order to hold it accountable. However, opposition parties might put off potential voters if they are seen to be constantly criticising the ruling party rather than contributing to the country’s development. Opposition parties might do better if they highlight their policy platforms and gain citizen confidence in their plans and capabilities. I contend that this is a crucial insight for opposition parties in our country as it runs counter to the opposition’s conventional role in Western democracies.
Democracy stands out as the widely accepted form of government among most of the nations for decades now mainly due to its cherished principle of rule of law that promises equality and freedom to all, ensured by the positive presence of checks and balances in the political system that would guard against any attempts by its leaders to tamper with it. It is indeed these checks and balances in the rule of the majority that provides an opportunity for the people to control their leaders and to dethrone them without the need for any revolution. These checks and balances come mainly, apart from the judiciary, in the form of the opposition party or parties in the representative democracies. As such, the opposition is one of the prerequisites for a healthy democracy in any country.
There is no united, strong, responsible and credible opposition in the country to play its due and effective role in Parliament.
In the background of historical evidence that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the opposition is but indispensable to pre-empt any attempts of the party in power to act against the will and interests of the people. With the massive majority of the Labour Movement in the 2017 Parliamentary general elections, bestowing muscular power to it in government, God forbid that the theoretical danger of “the tyranny of the majority” will hang over the heads of all the people in our nation. A united, strong, meaningful, committed, credible and responsible opposition is badly needed at any juncture to keep the government in check. And the current electoral scenario in Malta paints a grim picture in this regard, as the opposition parties have been facing heavy electoral defeats and are beleaguered with no signs of recovery.
There is no united, strong, responsible and credible opposition in the country to play its due and effective role in Parliament. In a short span of time, we have had three successive Leaders of the Opposition who have hardly delivered to expectations. The other major players in opposition are ridden with factionalism, casteism, self-centrism, and infighting, thereby making them a laughing stock at this critical juncture.
While the present government has delivered, as promised in its election manifesto on poverty, housing, health, education, infrastructure, and on many other sectors, there is no room for complacency just because the opposition is falling apart. A strong and effective opposition is imperative to ensure that the elected government at the Centre would perform “with minimum government and maximum governance”, be transparent, responsive and accountable and does not assume arbitrariness in its actions neglecting the interests of the nation. A united, committed, effective and meaningful opposition is a must in Parliament to promote a responsible and reasonable debate in the decision-making process for enacting laws for the welfare of the people. The opposition needs a charismatic leader to reclaim its lost credibility and charm. To get back its rightful place in nation-building, the opposition should endeavour to re-invent itself.
Opposition is important for a healthy democracy. Democracy cannot survive without it. A divided and weak opposition is more dangerous than the muscular ruling party to Maltese democracy.
Can we ever expect a Nationalist or other party coming up with a matching or even better vision for our country than that of the Labour Movement? Hardly, as things stand.