Charging the electorate

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

On March 16, Parliament approved a motion – with a majority of 36 out of 69 members – for the holding of a consultative referendum on May 28 on the introduction of divorce. It also approved the referendum question: “Do you agree with having the option of having divorce for married couples who have been separated for four years when there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation and when adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are cared for”. Both sides were given a free vote.

Joseph Muscat expressed the view that the Bill should be withdrawn during this legislature if the people voted no in the referendum.

The two MPs who presented the Private Members’ Bill, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Evarist Bartolo, emphasising that the people’s voice expressed in a referendum would be heard, declared they would withdraw it if the majority voted against the introduction of divorce in a referendum.

Lawrence Gonzi, speaking after the motion was carried, said he would respect the vote of the people and would grant another free vote to the Nationalist Party.

Immediately after the motion was passed, The Sunday Times asked MPs how they would vote after the divorce referendum (March 20). Not all of them appreciated the initiative. Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo, referring to the survey, said “this exercise can only prejudice MPs’ sincerity. This is a consultative referendum that is not binding and you cannot twist MPs’ arms when divorce was on nobody’s mandate”. Mr Vassallo, together with Dr Pullicino Orlando, is one of five PN members for the 11th district.

Out of 69 MPs, The Sunday Times succeeded to put the question to 67 of them. Of those contacted, 10 –seven PN and three Labour – did not commit themselves. In the words of the journalist, the result “shows the majority will not thwart the democratic process, even if in certain cases the result and their beliefs are intrinsically opposed”.

Let’s consider the composition of this democratic majority.

Forty-five MPs – of which 16 PN and 29 PL – declared that, whatever their personal convictions, they would vote in Parliament during this legislature in line with the will of the majority in the referendum. PL’s Carmelo Abela is a case in point. With admirable clarity, this is what he replied: “I’m against divorce but if we’re going to the people to hear what they have to say I’m morally obliged to follow the will of the majority”. The PN’s Ċensu Galea is another: “Hopefully, there will not be a conflict between my values and the outcome in the referendum result. However, we have to take note of what the people say”.

Another six – three from each side – revealed that if it comes to a conflict between their moral convictions and the referendum result, they will abstain.

Francis Zammit Dimech (PN) is an example: “I will act in such a way that will respect the people’s decision, so if the result is a win for the yes camp, I will abstain to ensure the people’s will prevails”. Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) has chosen the same path: “I will not hinder the democratic process. I will respect the people’s wishes but my convictions against divorce remain, so I will abstain from voting on the Bill in Parliament”.

And then there is a minority of 12 – of whom 11 PN and one PL – all of whom are (I presume unconditionally) against divorce, that have declared that they would vote against the Bill even if a majority at the referendum vote in favour of it. The word “even” is actually unnecessary for the simple reason that if a majority vote against divorce, then the Bill will be withdrawn by the two members that presented it and no MP would need to “thwart the democratic process”.

As uncompromising on this issue as his father, Beppe Fenech Adami (PN) is one of them. He said: “I will vote against any divorce legislation irrespective of the referendum result”. Why do I bring Eddie Fenech Adami into the picture? For the same reason that prompted Fr Renè Camilleri, on this paper on February 26, to argue that the PN – and, consequently, the opposition – would have taken a more arms-distance position had Eddie Fenech Adami not intervened so heavy-handedly. Quote: “What I believe changed the scenario at the eleventh hour was the unexpected and unwarranted pressure exerted by a former President and by a Cabinet member to bring the party in government to change direction”.

In my previous article I suggested that the former PN leader has stepped in to enable the PN to appeal, on the one hand, to its hard-line electorate and, and the other, to a more moderate, more reasonable and less conservative electorate. While Eddie Fenech Adami appeals to the PN’s traditional core constituency – with his son Beppe positioning himself to reap the personal political dividends – Lawrence Gonzi, reassured that the core is taken care of, can afford to reach out to the more modern floating fringes so crucial at the coming election.

On August 2, I argued that we should avoid emotionally aggressive crusades on this issue so as to permit individuals to make up their mind with the serenity that such a decision demands (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100802/opinion/plea-for-sober-civilised-debate). I underestimated the appeal of crusades for those that understand that emotionally charged electorates are easier to dupe.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on April 11, 2011, and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110411/opinion/charging-the-electorate


Libya: line in the sand at Ajdabiya

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

For daily synthetic updates, background and more,  see Watching Libya  at www.gtmalta.com

Divorce over Libya or ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ routine?

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

It seems only yesterday that, on January 14, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country. He tried to repress his angry people killing some of them in the process but that made matters worse. He tried to appease them with empty promises of reforms and elections but it was too little too late.

Already one day before Mr Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia, on January 13, largely unnoticed by the world, there were protests in several towns in neighbouring Libya over the late delivery of social housing.

On the night of January 15, hundreds of people broke into empty apartments in Bani Walid, about 180 kilometres to the southeast of Tripoli.

Many of them had been waiting for years to take possession of homes for which they had already paid most of the instalments. Many of them also claimed to have had to pay something on the side to corrupt local officials to be allocated a flat in the first place.

The police did not intervene. Official Libyan media did not report the incident but this did not stop it from, typically, reporting an official statement condemning the protests as “demagogy”. Also typically, the statement announced the setting up of a special committee to investigate every complaint and solve all problems. Similar protests took place in Al Bayda and Derna on the Cyrenaican coast and in Sebha in the Fezzan.

A month later, on February 15, several hundred people assembled in front of Benghazi’s police headquarters to protest against the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the Libyan lawyer representing the families of the circa 1,000 prisoners who are claimed to have been executed by security forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. As the police attempted to disperse the crowd with hot water cannons, plainclothes security officers were reported to have shot at the demonstrators. The protest spread to Al Bayda to the east of Benghazi and to Az-Zintan in the Nefusa range south of Tripoli where police stations were set on fire.

If we take February 15 as the beginning of the war in Libya – for war it is – then tomorrow we enter the seventh week of hostilities. It’s been 11 days since, on March 17, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorising a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from attacks by loyalist forces. It’s been nine days since French planes fired the first shots that started the military campaign.

The war in Libya has provided one of those rare opportunities for the government and the opposition in Malta to unite in the national interest, a unity based on a common understanding of what is our national interest in such a situation. The Prime Minister stood by his government’s decision not to host military aircraft used against the Gaddafi regime. He explained that Malta only has one airport and that military bases were available only a few minutes away from Malta. In the past weeks, the Maltese government has consistently cited Malta’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality, which rules out the location of foreign military bases on the island and use of military facilities in Malta by any foreign armed force.

Lawrence Gonzi told the media his “priority as Prime Minister is the security of the country”. He also reiterated Malta’s willingness to continue to play a “pivotal role on humanitarian and evacuation issues” arising from the situation in Libya. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition confirmed that the government and the opposition were in agreement regarding Malta’s position. Malta, he said, should continue to be prudent, serving as a humanitarian Mediterranean hub and keeping its security as the utmost priority.

Not everybody quite agrees with the government and the opposition. Take President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami. Speaking on March 20 at an event at Tarxien to mark the Nationalist Party club’s 25th anniversary, the former PN leader and Prime Minister is reported to have said that if coalition forces need to use Malta to carry out the UN-mandated military action against Libya, “we should accept”. He also made the legal point that Malta’s Constitution allowed it to take full part in action so long as it were sanctioned by the UN’s Security Council.

Although the newspaper report indicates he was careful (I quote what I assume are the reporter’s words) “not to criticise the government’s cautious approach so far”, he did emphasise (I quote direct speech from the report) “that if what is happening is done with the blessing of the Security Council, we are… I would not say obliged… but free to accept that decision. We should not go against the concrete resolutions of the UN”.

How to interpret Dr Fenech Adami’s words? Is it the good old good-cop-bad-cop routine? In this case, the former Nationalist Prime Minister is serving to balance Dr Gonzi’s position in the eyes of the PN’s core electorate. The subtext would be: OK, the PN government does not want Malta to be used as a military base but this has nothing to do with the neutrality bit in the Constitution because that clause is not binding in the case of UN-sanctioned military action. Further: We did it freely and not because we were forced to do so by something invented by Labour in the 1980s.

The other interpretation is more intriguing. Here goes. Perhaps the former PN leader and former Prime Minister is indicating an underlying and fundamental disagreement with his successor, Dr Gonzi. An ideological divorce as it were. The Tarxien debate was, as was inevitable, focused on the divorce issue. On that issue, Dr Fenech Adami reiterated his categorical no.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on March 28, 2011, and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110328/opinion/an-ideological-divorce-on-libya