Wouter Veenendaal – Malta: How Smallness Produces Clientelism, Polarisation, Record Turnout and Corruption

Malta, a EU member, is considered a mafia state. Even the past commissioners it has sent to the EU tend to be notoriously corrupt. It is just another example of the political and moral rot that has set in in the EU.

Politics in Malta is characterised by deep polarisation between the country’s two main parties and high levels of voter turnout in elections. Wouter Veenendaal explains that these two features are directly tied to the country’s small size, as is the prevalence of clientelism and corruption. All of these elements were evident in the response to the murder of Maltese journalist and anti-corruption activist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

Wouter Veenendaal is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Leiden University.

Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP

Valletta, Credit: Steve Camilleri (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On October 16, 2017, a car bomb killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most renowned journalist and anticorruption activist. Two weeks later, I travelled to Malta to conduct three weeks of field research, consisting primarily of interviews with politicians, journalists, academics, and NGO representatives. The goal of this fieldwork was to study how the smallness of Malta affects interactions between citizens and politicians, and how this can be related to record voter turnout levels, Malta’s legacy of profound partisan polarisation, and recurring corruption scandals.

While an understanding of these dynamics became even more significant in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s assassination, her murder also resulted in an intensification of pre-existing political fault lines, amplified by mass demonstrations as well as fresh questions about the viability of Malta’s institutional framework. This inevitably also had an impact on the course of my fieldwork, the results of which have recently been published in a new study.

Malta is not only the smallest, but also the most densely populated member state of the European Union. Its nearly 500,000 citizens live on three islands that together only cover 316 square kilometres. In combination, smallness and density have created a heavily networked society, in which citizens and politicians are in constant, direct contact. By means of house visits, office hours, and so-called constituency clinics, politicians continuously reach out to voters, creating a blurred boundary between professional and private relationships.

This contact almost always relates to personal queries of voters, ranging from people’s housing situation, jobs, taxes, health care, and pensions to really personal issues like disease, loneliness, or relations within the family. Due to the fact that elections in Malta are often decided on the basis of a few hundred votes, politicians face considerable pressures to address and alleviate such personal concerns. The smallness of Malta thus creates powerful incentives for clientelistic exchanges, which form the basis of most interactions between citizens and politicians.

The prevalence of patron-client linkages can be related to extremely high turnout figures in Malta, which always exceed 90% (without compulsory voting). Because personal connections with politicians are an important means of citizens to obtain goods or services, to individual voters it matters a great deal which politicians and parties are elected into office. As one interviewee responded when asked about these record turnout levels: “Because it’s Russian Roulette, it’s do or die. If my party is in, I am going to get the favours. It is easier for me to get what I need. If my party is not in, I am finished. So we have to vote.”

In addition to this motivation, the smallness of Malta also enhances politicians’ capacities to monitor the participation of individual citizens. On voting day, representatives of the two main political parties keep track of who voted and who did not, and absentees will be reminded of their duty to participate. The lack of political anonymity created by the smallness of Malta thus also contributes to clientelistic politics and high levels of political participation.

In addition to extreme turnout figures, Maltese politics is also notoriously polarised, and in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s political tensions occasionally turned into open violence. While ideological differences between Malta’s two political parties (the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party) have gradually faded, politics in Malta remains very tribal and bipolar, with little room for neutral or independent voices and views.

The murder of Caruana Galizia – who had uncovered a series of corruption scandals implicating prominent Labour politicians – sparked new outbursts of hostility, with Nationalists holding the Labour government responsible for creating the environment in which this murder could happen, and accusing the government of frustrating subsequent investigations into the assassination. Patron-client linkages can be regarded as an important source of this tribalism, since the wellbeing of voters to a large extent depends on who is in power. If so much is at stake, an election victory for the opposition can almost become an existential threat, which needs to be prevented at any cost.

A third characteristic of Maltese politics that can be related to smallness and clientelism, is the government’s capacity to completely dominate the social and political arena. Election victories in Malta translate into a party’s near-total control of the state apparatus, while a defeat leaves the opposition and its supporters almost completely powerless. The Maltese government controls the lion’s share of the job market, and employment in the public sector is one of the main benefits that politicians can allocate to supporters. Since such partisan appointments amplify the control of the party in power, weakening (semi-) public institutions that are supposed to function in an impartial or neutral manner, clientelism and patronage exacerbate the dominance of the party in power.

Finally, clientelism and tribalism can be related to the recurrence of corruption scandals in Malta, and the culture of impunity vis-à-vis corrupt officials. By increasing people’s social and economic dependence on the politicians in power, clientelism diminishes the ability and willingness of citizens to hold politicians accountable. In an extremely polarised environment in which neutral institutions are hard to find, corruption scandals are likely to become just another flash point for partisan antagonism, especially if both parties have had their share of corruption scandals in the past, and manifestly corrupt officials have simply retained their jobs. The smallness and interconnectedness of Maltese society also stifles people’s willingness to voice criticism of corrupt behaviour because of an awareness that one might need connections with transgressing politicians sometime in the future.

Within this context, it is perhaps no surprise that the murder of Caruana Galizia primarily resulted in an intensification of existing political and social divisions in Malta, especially since the journalist herself was a highly controversial person who did not shy away from insults and personal attacks. Demonstrations supporting press freedom quickly turned into partisan gatherings, attended mostly if not exclusively by Nationalist politicians and their supporters. Attention soon focused on the alleged political bias of law enforcement agencies and officials, especially after one police officer involved in the investigation expressed glee over Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and an aide to the Prime Minister suggested that Caruana Galizia’s own family had a role in the murder.

Such inflammatory statements understandably caused great uproar, but the focus on these incidents also inhibited a broader reflection on the shortcomings of the Maltese political system and the functioning of Maltese democracy. While members of the European Parliament did raise concerns about the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder, and an investigation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) cast doubts on the rule of law in Malta, the Maltese ruling party responded by questioning the integrity and neutrality of these investigations.

Yet whatever the outcome of these European inquiries, they are unlikely to affect the fundamental characteristics of Malta’s political culture, marked by a combination of smallness, polarisation, and patron-client linkages. In the end, therefore, it is highly doubtful whether Caruana Galizia’s murder will actually result in genuine political reforms in Malta.

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