‘Welcome to Tropico… I mean, Malta…’

At which point, the question does have to be asked: who is really ‘cheating’ whom, in this political game? The ‘politician-seller’… or the ‘voter-buyer’?

Picture the scene: we are on a small island-state, somewhere on the periphery of a large world superpower. There is an election coming up. The incumbent Prime Minister – sorry, ‘El Presidente’ – is concerned at the possibility of losing his first (and, in his own view, entirely unnecessary) encounter with direct democracy.

But at the eleventh hour, El Presidente receives a phone-call from a high-positioned ally in the neighbouring world superpower. He is bluntly informed, over the phone, that the secret to winning elections consists in just one word – MONEY! – and that his Swiss Bank Account has just benefitted from a generous ‘campaign donation’, to the tune of (as I recall) $100 million.

El Presidente also receives advice on how to spend that money. He should use it to:

a) ‘Bribe Faction Leaders’ (which would drastically reduce popular discontent across the board), and;

b) Issue a ‘Tax Cut’ edict (which, for obvious reasons, would make everyone just that much happier with their present government…)

And hey presto! What had previously seemed an unwinnable election, suddenly translates into a 90+% majority for… drums rolling… El Presidente! [Note: and it can even become a 99% majority, if you also avail of the ‘Rig the Election’ option in the game menu…]

Now: if you are in any way familiar with the above scenario, it can only mean one of two things. Either you have played a 2013 computer game called ‘Tropico 4’ (in which case: admit it… you cheated to win that election, didn’t you? Otherwise, you would never have got past that campaign mission at all…)

Or else, you have lived in Malta long enough to have witnessed at least one election first-hand.

Heck, some of you may even have experienced both those things simultaneously (Note: I make it a point to replay the Tropico campaign, once every five years or so… just to remind myself what few differences really exist, between our own ‘independent island nation-state’… and a fictitious Caribbean Banana Republic, ruled by a tin-pot dictator.)

In fact: only a few, very minor details actually need changing, to turn that ‘Tropico’ scenario into an entirely accurate description of the sort of ‘vote-buying’ we witness before every Maltese election.

Take the ‘Bribe the Faction Leaders’ option, for instance: it’s exactly the same in Malta… except that – erm – it usually works the clean other way round.

Yes, folks: it is our ‘faction leaders’ – the construction magnates; the industry lobbyists; the hunters and trappers; the illegal boathouse owners; the ‘this’; the ‘that’; and the ‘other’ – who quite blatantly hold the two political parties to ransom, for the full five years leading up to the election…

… and they have been doing this for so long, and so successfully, that some of them have even started openly boasting about it (like former MDA president Sandro Chetcuti, who famously likened the two parties with ‘supermarkets for developers’)…

Meanwhile – more bizarrely still – the two parties themselves have even started complaining about it, too. Labour’s Luciano Busuttil, for instance, recently told The Times that “dishing out jobs, making false promises and even handing out free fridges to voters is all fair game in Maltese politics.”

Not to be outdone, a PN candidate by the name of Malcolm Bezzina went a step further: “I voted Labour in 2013 because I was promised assistance with an operation that I needed to have done in the UK, after pursuing a treatment that was not offered in Malta… [But] once Labour was elected, all the doors were closed. I never got assistance from the government…”

And this, I suppose, only illustrates the truth of that ancient, time-honoured economic principle: ‘It takes two to tango’. Just as any transaction requires both a seller, and a buyer… so, too, can elections only be bought, and sold, through negotiations between two, equally ‘involved’, business partners.

In practice, this simply means that ‘Bribe the Faction leaders’, and ‘Be bribed by the Faction leaders’, are different ways of saying the same thing. Nor does even it matter much, whether the ‘bribe’ itself takes the form of… MONEY! (as it does in the game)… or planning permits; tax exemptions; beach concessions; or even, for that matter, the ‘five free energy-saving light bulbs’ that former finance minister Tonio Fenech once tried to flog off to us, on the eve of an election.

(Indeed, it surprises me little that it had to be Fenech himself, of all people, to first identify Robert Abela’s latest stunt for the ‘vote-buying exercise’ it really is. He does, after all, have quite a lot of experience playing this particular game…)

Naturally, this brings us to the second item on the election-buying menu: ‘Issuing the Tax Cut Edict’. And again, all you need to do to is glance at this week’s newspaper headlines, to practically see Penultimo’s face grinning back to you from the page. [Note: that was a Tropico 4 in-joke… so I imagine both Abela and Fenech understood it only too well.]

“Abela hands out €70 million in €100-€200 cheques to workers, students and pensioners”… Honestly, though: why not just set up a market stall, and hang out a sign saying ‘Votes For Sale’? For how else can we possibly interpret an announcement that – in case nobody else has noticed – seems to blatantly contradict the objectives of Budget 2022, as described to us by none other than Finance Minister Clyde Caruana last November?

That’s right, folks: the same Clyde Caruana who told us all the budget would “step up the fight against tax evasion, and collect overdue [tax] arrears”…

… was suddenly standing right beside Robert Abela, as he practically showered us with “€100-€200 cheques”, scattered from the rooftops like confetti – and aimed at practically everyone, too: for to those ‘workers, students, pensioners’, we must also add ‘anyone who is on social benefits’… and as I far as I can see, that covers pretty much the full spectrum of eligible Maltese voters, down to the last conceivable voter-bracket….

So… what can I say? Either Caruana’s ‘overdue tax collection’ was so extraordinarily successful, that government found it had an unexpected extra €70 million, to just blow on a little electoral ‘shopping-spree’…

… or else, that government decided to postpone the ‘tax collecting’ part of its mission, to concentrate – just as the player does, in Tropico 4 – on progressing past the current campaign hurdle: ‘Winning the Election’. (And given that Abela’s overwhelming generosity has already inflated the national deficit to over €1.5 billion… I’m inclined towards the latter option, myself.)

Having said this: there are a few notable differences between Tropico and Malta, too. Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first: when playing the computer game, you are consciously emulating the likes of unabashedly ‘dictatorial’ rulers such as Papa Doc, Rafael Trujillo, Pedro Santana, etc. So you are more or less ‘expected’ – ‘encouraged’, even – to be openly disdainful towards the democratic process (and towards ‘fair play’ in general).

And yet… even in a God-forsaken, ‘Generalissimo-ridden’, banana republic like Tropico – where ‘rules’ are literally ‘there to be broken’ – the entire vote-buying process is still carried out just a little less… well, blatantly than here.

For instance: that ‘campaign donation’, that was used to ‘bribe those faction leaders’, and finance all those ‘tax-cuts’…? It was SECRET, you know (so secret, in fact, that it even had to be funnelled into an undeclared offshore account…)

By way of contrast, the way Robert Abela is now playing the same game… I won’t say it’s exactly ‘original’ (for like I said: he is hardly the first Maltese prime minister to have ever ‘showered us with goodies’, just weeks ahead of an election)…

… but it certainly isn’t what you would call ‘subtle’, is it? For let’s face it: there is no ‘secret’ whatsoever, as to where all this sudden windfall is actually coming from. It’s coming from the National Exchequer… which also means that – while he may indeed be the most unlikely person in the Universe, to actually have the nerve to even complain about it at all…

… Tonio Fenech is nonetheless perfectly correct to say that ‘Robert Abela is buying the election with OUR money’. (Indeed, it was pleasant to hear the former finance minister actually talking about matters within his competence, for a change… instead of all those ‘weeping Madonnas’, etc…)

But the same old ‘two-to-tango’ economic principle still applies… so not only does the Maltese electorate (unlike, it must be said, that of Tropico) sit idly by, while its government secures its own re-election by spending THEIR hard-earned cash… but they openly applaud the transaction, too!

It is, after all, still ‘free money’ – and almost literally ‘falling from the sky’, too! – and besides: as Malcolm Bezzina’s experience, above, so neatly illustrates… it’s not as though there’s any actual ‘obligation’, either way.

Oh, no: just as the Labour government could easily renege on its ‘promise of assistance’ to Bezzina, once safely elected… the electorate can always renege on a ‘commitment’ (which, in any case, was never actively ‘entered into’) to actually vote Labour, in the privacy of that cubicle.

At which point, the question does have to be asked: who is really ‘cheating’ whom, in this political game? The ‘politician-seller’… or the ‘voter-buyer’?

And if it turns out (as it certainly seems to me) to be a ‘little bit of both’… then…

Seriously, though: just how hopelessly corrupt ARE we, as a nation… if we are clearly so very LESS democratic, than even a video-game parody, of a ‘Papa-Doc’-style, tin-pot, Caribbean, goddamn… DICTATORSHIP?!