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MT 27 March 2016

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25 maltatoday, SUNDAY, 27 MARCH 2016 Opinion necessary support from within his own party… let alone from a Congress he might not even control… to actually implement any of it. With hindsight, that is also what had stopped Obama's reform in its tracks. What both these otherwise incomparable men have in abundance, however – and the same goes for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – is personality. They have it by the bucketful, even it appeals to hopelessly incompatible segments of the population. And being an American election, there is also showmanship thrown into the mix. In Trump's case, it is more of the Las Vegas variety than Disney… but that only makes it even glitzier and more garish. For some reason, I can almost hear a voice muttering: "This will all end in tears". A country cannot be simultaneously pulled in opposite directions, without sooner or later falling apart at the seams. It happened once already… and the battle- lines remain largely unchanged since the American Civil War (though, bizarrely, the Democrats and Republicans seem to have switched sides in the meantime). But enough about the state of the States. Like I said earlier, it is not hard to see a pattern in all this. It doesn't quite work as a like-with- like analogy… though Joseph Muscat did try to consciously model his own election on that of Barack Obama… and both he and Simon Busuttil have uttered their fair share of pretty Trump-like idiocies of late. But the general thrust is largely the same. Not just the fact that Malta is likewise being simultaneous pulled in incompatible directions – that has always been the case here – but also the steady decline towards a Disney/Las Vegas model of democracy, whereby election are decided on the basis of personality cults. This, too, has always been the case. And in former years, the clashes were between truly Titanic characters. I have no actual memory of Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi, though from photographs he seemed every bit as physically threatening as a mousetrap in a corner. But in terms of character? Sheesh… not since King Leopold II of Belgium was such total obedience demanded (and obtained) of so many, by one diminutive little man. Same goes for Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami, albeit (again) in very different ways. Not only were election campaigns 30 years ago crafted around these central personalities; but the entire parties themselves existed solely as extensions of their leaders. This is perhaps more true of Mintoff than Eddie… he practically founded the modern MLP in 1949, and led it ever since… but the identity forged by the PN under Eddie in the 1970s just happened to also ref lect all his own personal beliefs and concerns. Already it can be seen that this is no long-term vision for a political party that must also ref lect a constantly mutating public opinion. Unsurprisingly, then, both parties paid a hefty price for their respective usurpation. In Labour's case, the cost was higher… proportional, as it were, to its leader's stature. For many years, it was actually question of, "Is there life after Mintoff "? And for many years, there wasn't. If a party allows itself to become an extension of its leader's personality… and its leader's personality happens to be inimitable and unrepeatable… what choice is there, but for the party to lose all sense of identity the moment that leader steps down? It doesn't help, naturally, that after the interregnum of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, the MLP was taken over by the very antithesis of Mintoff: a Harvard-trained free market economist, who claimed to be inspired by Bill Clinton. But any way. Labour would be a lost wanderer in the wilderness for almost exactly 20 years since Mintoff retired in 1984. 'Nuff said. In the PN's case, the transition was smoother… Lawrence Gonzi was nothing if not a continuation from Eddie's ideological direction… but the consequences were equally devastating. Like Mintoff, Eddie had kept the vastly divergent factions within his party in check through the sheer dominance of his personality. Gonzi lacked the stature for that. He lost control of those factions, and the results are still visible today (just look at the sudden attack on the Mario de Marco faction from a PN columnist last week, for instance). Fast-forward to today, and the similarities become more distinct (not least, because both parties seem to consciously model their own strategies on US politics). Muscat echoed Obama in 2013, and smashed a disjointed Nationalist Party on the promise of a spectacular programme of change. Like Obama, his legacy will be determined later. He has so far delivered on two key promises - civil rights, and economic performance – while f latly reneging on a number of others: with particular reference to governance, transparency and environmental issues. After Panamagate, his personal trust ratings have plummeted among the one voter segment whose support he needs the most: the traditionally Nationalist voter who switched to Labour in 2013. The direction clearly follows Obama's path, and the frustration and exasperation is already visible on Muscat's face. Labour, in brief, is slowly coming round to realising that 'personality', on its own, doesn't deliver the goods. A political vision can't just be successfully fronted by someone with charisma; it must (in this case) also be based on genuine principles. Otherwise… where's the change? If all we wanted was decent economic stewardship coupled with a lousy attitude towards governance… there would be no real reason to switch from voting Nationalist. Speaking of which: it seems the PN hasn't taken on board the lessons from the Gonzi debacle, either. It has maintained the traditional Eddie era 'personality cult' approach… with Busuttil once more presenting himself as the solitary saviour of Malta's democracy… while trying to ignore the internal divisions that will ultimately make that vision impossible to achieve. Even if he is honest in his intentions… does Busuttil have the stature required to impose his demands on the rest of the party (as Eddie did, and Gonzi didn't?), and even more importantly, on the entire public administration of the country? That is a question that nobody in the Nationalist Party seems to want to even ask, let alone answer. I hate to say it, but this too looks like it will end in tears. The 'cult of personality' works, yes… but only if your party leaders have personality by the bucketful. And no offence or anything, but the simple fact of the matter is that… they don't. Neither party has been led by any such person in the last 10 or 20 years. A political vision can't just be fronted by someone with charisma; it must also be based on genuine principles. Otherwise… where's the change?

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