Sunday, 16 January 2011

Breaking Point

16th January 2011
The Malta Independent on Sunday

It is amazing how events in Tunisia this week transformed themselves so quickly from small riots in the suburbs into a mass movement for change in the capital city, leading to the emergency escape from the country of President Ben Ali who had to flee to Saudi Arabia for his – and his family’s – life.

Years of a slow accumulation of tensions finally reach breaking point and give way to sudden eruptions which brush aside all that stands in their way. We saw it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as communism imploded. Former soviet satellite republics and East European countries reached out for freedom through street demonstrations, the most remarkable of which was the bringing down of the Berlin Wall.

Could the Tunisian revolution be the beginning of a more widespread movement searching for true freedom in other North African states? Neighbouring Algeria is particularly vulnerable, but other states are not immune.

What was despicable about the Tunisian regime was that it was grossly authoritarian but falsely dressed as democratic through the guise of oppressed elections. Ben Ali seized power in 1987 and since then had kept tight control off the country, even changing the constitution through a sham public referendum to permit him to win five consecutive democratic terms in office, the last of which was in 2009 with a declared majority of 89 per cent that was meant to last until 2014, by which time Ben Ali would be 78 years old.

Whenever a supposed democracy produces such huge majorities it also produces an unerring assessment that the democratic apparatus is a sham purely to give cover to the authoritarian hold on power of the establishment. It is much better to have a dictatorship that declares itself as such, instead of an authoritarian regime disguised as a democracy.

Tunisian protestors may have sent a message of defiance to Arab rulers, but they have also sent a rather different message to the West. For decades, Western governments depicted Tunisia as an oasis of calm and economic success – a place with which they could do business. They turned a blind eye to President Ben Ali’s harsh suppression of dissent – and ignored the fact that, while the elite prospered, ordinary Tunisians suffered.

Suddenly there has been a change of tack. In Washington, President Barack Obama has been quick to denounce the excesses of the Tunisian police and voice the hope that the country will move towards a more democratic future. His Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – at the end of a visit to the Gulf – delivered a blistering critique of corruption and political stagnation in the region.

The Obama administration – perhaps stung by criticism that it has been too timid on these issues – seems to have sensed that it has to speak out or lose credibility. The response from the EU, especially from France – the former colonial power, cannot be that different.

The EU has an obligation to ensure that true democracy is cultivated in Tunisia rather than there just being a regime change, as was the case when Ben Ali took over from Bourguiba 23 years ago.

What lessons are there for us in Malta from this Tunisian affair? The first lesson is economic. As often happens, someone else’s problem could for us be a blessing in disguise. While we regret the loss of life and hardships in neighbouring friendly countries, we should not fail to grasp the economic opportunities presented.

Our tourism industry should be ready to grab the opportunity of increased demand as tourists – at least temporarily – remove Tunisia from their shortlist of holiday destinations for 2011.

But the lessons should go beyond that. Even here we have had a perfectly democratic regime change in 1987 to a governing party that has maintained power practically ever since, except for the brief interlude of 1996-1998. We obviously do have a much more effective democracy than Tunisia, borne out by the fact that the last election of 2008 was won by a razor-thin majority, not by 89 per cent.

Yet governments who persist so much in power inevitably accumulate over-confidence which becomes perceived as arrogance and which ultimately leads to a democratic change. Why the democratic change has not happened before is mainly attributable to two basic reasons. Firstly because, as the country was focused on a mission to join the EU, not least to acquire an external means to keep control over its own domestic political forces, it could not find a decent alternative in the opposition to achieve its aims. And secondly, because we still have a gross democratic deficit in the way political parties finance their operations.

When the difference between the popular support of the two main parties is as narrow as it usually is in Malta, then this democratic deficit could have significant influence in the final outcome that decides on which side the respective parties sit in parliament.

The Tunisian affair should be an eye-opener to our government – long in power, but undoubtedly still with the country’s interest at heart. For the sake of true national spirit it has to do three things during 2011 to ensure that our country can continue to prosper under a truly working democracy.

It has to address once and for all the democratic deficit caused by the obscure way in which political parties fund themselves.

It has to come to its senses and eliminate the party divide in its public appointments. It is an insult to the half of the population of Labour creed that, with such a razor-thin majority, the government only involves the Opposition when it needs to share the blame, as with the Air Malta restructuring exercise. The appointment of George Abela as President (without any constitutional executive power) is mere eyewash and does not meet the true national need to make public appointments on the basis of merit rather than party allegiance.

Lastly, it has to realise that when people suffer for reasons over which none of them has control, as in the case of the increase in the price of energy and food, the government cannot leave it completely to market forces to sort things out through free price mechanisms. There are people who genuinely cannot afford further price increases in such basic things as heating and our daily bread and milk. Direct subsidies would not make economic sense, as they would assist everyone, not just those in need, and would delay the necessary consumption pattern changes to take account of the new price realities.

But direct payments through taxation to those most in need to protect them from the atrocious price increases that may be expected in the price of food and energy should be seriously and urgently considered, even if that would stretch our journey to a balanced public budgetary position over a longer period. Social cohesion comes at a price that is worth paying collectively if we want to collectively enjoy the benefits of living in social harmony, rather than with Tunisia-like riots.
Alfred Mifsud

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