A larger populist presence in the next European parliament is a growing concern in Brussels and other key EU capitals. It could deny the mainstream right and left parties control over the chamber and complicate plans to choose replacements for the biggest EU jobs becoming vacant in 2019 – the presidency of the European Commission, European Council and the European Central Bank.
The benign neglect of official Malta of issues that have come to dominate politics in other societies is not sustainable. We should not assume that Malta will escape the rising tide of populism without pre-emptive action. As our recent national debate on immigration has shown, the Maltese political system can work through difficult and divisive issues. Rather than allowing the far-right and its media mouthpieces to set the agenda on immigration and integration, we should be pre-emptive; we should start a constructive national dialogue on our own terms about the opportunities and challenges facing our diverse republic.
Malta is now seen – and deservedly so – as a leader in the use of deliberative democracy to support the political system. We should make use of our expertise in this area and establish, for instance, a new Citizens’ Assembly on Malta as a Diverse Republic. One of the great political riddles of recent years is the declining trust in political heavyweights and government entities, often encouraged and exploited by figures and populists of far more dubious moral character – not to mention far greater wealth – than the politicians being ousted. On the face of it, it would seem odd that a sense of “elite” corruption would play into the hands of blaggards such as Donald Trump or Marine LePen. But the authority of these figures owes nothing to their moral character, and everything to their perceived willingness to blow the whistle on corrupt “insiders” dominating the state and media.
As helpful as populism and many of these non-traditional forms of political participation have been in highlighting the demands and problems of marginalised groups, they also have a tendency to reinforce rather than bridge existing social and political divisions, which can exacerbate political polarisation and a variety of other problems, particularly since populists rarely offer viable or attractive solutions to their constituents’ real problems.
Overcoming populism requires giving people a voice with proportional representation and rejecting neo-liberal economics and plutocracy. But it also requires factual, public interest journalism. We need to find ways of giving facts and evidence a common meaning, of restoring respect for them as the basis of national conversations and getting rid of the filter bubbles that create self-selecting online tribes.
Fighting democracy’s contemporary problems thus requires finding ways to make traditional political institutions more responsive to a broader range of citizens, rather than merely a subset of them. If they do not, the appeal of populism will increase. If we expect citizens to recognise the value of liberal democracy and develop the skills and knowledge necessary for it to succeed, then we need to find ways to engage many more of them in politics.