In 2010, I spent a semester studying in central Italy. Ever the Maltese student looking for fun, I lived on campus and became good friends with Italian students from all around il bel paese. Many hailed from lower to middle class families, and their living expenses were funded by scholarships. It just so happened that while I was there, Silvio Berlusconi’s government decided that these grants were to be heavily reduced.
What followed were nationwide protests from Turin down to Palermo. Demonstrations were held, train lines were blocked and faculties were physically occupied for weeks on end. I was there, for the thrill of it more than anything, but what fascinated me was the consistent organisation of these protests.
Each city had its own distinct student union, but they all united under a common goal and with a common methodology. Protests happened in unison, under the same slogans and with the same plan. An amended version of the law was eventually passed, but only after then-president Giorgio Napolitano agreed to meet with students to discuss their grievances. Most of these student-organisers were barely 20 years old.
One can’t help but compare this situation to what is happening in Malta. Over the past two years, no less than seven different protest groups have cropped up. Just this month the latest one, Repubblika, was announced amid less-than-great fanfare. And it feels like, the more groups crop up, the more the message gets lost.
These movements have all surfaced over the past couple years, specifically in the wake of two events: the Panama Papers scandal that implicated Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in whatever it is they needed offshore companies for, and more tragically, the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The messages of these protest groups are largely noble, timely and well-meaning. But their disjointed approach is completely wrong.
Unlike the separate but united approach my Italian friends took, we locally have a situation where those involved are tugging the rope in one too many directions. This fragmented approach is counter-productive. Their intentions are good but bad strategy is diluting the very message these groups are pushing. To the general public, another movement doesn’t reinforce the message; it diminishes it.
"To the general public, another movement doesn’t reinforce the message; it diminishes it."
Much like an opposition that is fragmented is nowhere as effective as a united one, so do protest movements need to be united not only in their message, but also in their campaigning and approach.
We really need to be asking why this division is happening. The message these groups are sending to the public is that they are divided because they can’t agree between themselves. That they are only capable of burning bridges rather than building them. Instead of taking the time to sit together, put differences aside and work towards a common goal, they are forming offshoots (sometimes of previous offshoots) and eroding their influence in the process.
How does this look to the general public? It leaves us unimpressed and unconvinced. It begins to appear like a series of protests against one another rather than protests about the state of affairs in the country. It exposes the lack of charisma and relatability of the protest leaders, both essential if you are trying to building a movement. Irrespective of political leanings, the approach taken by these groups is not only further alienating pro-Government supporters; it is pushing away people in general.
To some extent, the current state of affairs is an effect of the post-Busuttil era within the Nationalist Party. Adrian Delia’s election as leader didn’t go down well with some, leading to the rise of grassroots movements which were as opposed to this ‘new PN’ as they were to Labour. These people felt misrepresented by Malta’s major political parties and decided to act on it. Fine.
The problem, though, is that this enabled a divisive culture internally, where even the slightest difference in opinion became an excuse to form a breakaway movement, rather than an opportunity to make effective internal challenges and be convincing. In doing so, these groups ended up becoming exactly what they preached against. They became more partisan than partisan and discarded any pretence of being united.
"These groups ended up becoming exactly what they preached against. They became more partisan than partisan and discarded any pretence of being united."
And it’s not just about being united. Criticism needs to be pointed and strategic, rather than haphazard and ill-timed. Bad execution inevitably leads to people becoming immune, as we’ve seen over the past years with an Opposition that has called for resignations at any opportunity, to the extent that people are now unfazed.
You’ve probably witnessed this yourself. Most people know at least one person who attended a demonstration or protesta nazzjonali held around the time of the Panama Papers. How many of them attended the demonstration held last month? Losing people is arguably worse than never having targeted them at all.
Let us not forget that the Labour Party won the 2017 general election with a 35,000+ vote margin. In less than 18 months, that margin ballooned to 90,000 votes according to recent polls. This coincides with the emergence of these protest movements, so clearly something isn’t working. If we are misguided enough to think that Joseph Muscat will heed calls for his or his closest ones’ resignations on the strength of such a majority, then we are seriously fooling ourselves.
This is not about what he should or shouldn’t do; it’s about accepting the bleak reality of the situation. And the reality is that, without a substantial part of the people behind you, things won’t change.
So it’s fair to say the current approach doesn’t work, but what will?
Definitely a lot more than can be quantified in a few words, but a good start is to come together and channel criticism through a united front. The strength in numbers maxim holds true, but only if it’s filtered through one voice. The effort doesn’t need to be toned down, only re-directed in a way that makes sense.
Another smart move is to look at this as a long-term plan. A solid protest movement needs to be based on strategy and holistic planning. It took the Labour Party 25 years in opposition (bar 18 months of turmoil) to overturn a vote difference that was a sixth of the current one. And it only succeeded when all forces united behind a leader.
"It took the Labour Party 25 years in opposition to overturn a vote difference that was a sixth of the current one. And it only succeeded when all forces united behind a leader."
If that proves anything, it’s that a quick win and haphazard approach doesn’t work.
Criticism needs to take into the account the mind frame, sentiment and priorities of the people. Good intentions don’t always translate into effective messages, and they clearly don’t always yield results. Emphasis needs to be made on the right areas, at the right time and in a clever manner.
We need to be looking at the rising stars who will be future leaders in 10, 15, 20 years. Such as that fifth form student who addressed the PN’s annual general council last Sunday and who spoke with the eloquence and common sense that most veteran politicians can only envy. We need to hope that such promising candidates don’t become party puppets who regurgitate propaganda and justify it in private conversations as being “the way things work in this country.”
We need a protest movement that understands that you need to win people first, then proceed to make a difference. To do that, you need charisma and you need to be relatable. What they say and do needs to resonate with the people and reflect public sentiment.
Ultimately, we need to understand that what we need is an organisation or individual who can truly inspire, not ten movements that can't.
The government might not welcome a strong protest movement, but at least it will be forced to respect it.