No one does elections like we do in Malta. This is a fact un-related to political colours, ideologies and alignments. It is something to celebrate, and something that is prodigiously revelatory.
Over the course of the last few months I’ve been working (and finishing) the first draft of a novel that has taught me a lot of intimate details about Malta and the Maltese. And, as history would have it, these details came to a flourish at the end of Malta’s short election campaign.
I’ve watched – as all political animals have watched, or, indeed those who love to watch the human soap opera – the American campaign, the French and the British. The American campaign was big, like America’s Got Talent big, just with lots more hillbillies. There were big stages, big crowds (and small hands). The French election saw huge crowds filling the Champs-Élysées and swarm the Eiffel Tower – and strange, hologrammed politicians hovered here there and everywhere, too.
In Britain campaigning is like getting together to have a pot of tea with a crowd. Disappointing, really, from a nation of such proud pseudo-hooligan behaviour such as is seen on the large scale every single weekend in the Premiership. No one does football like the English – but politics, that’s a non-league game!
When it comes to the Maltese election – the only parallels I can make is the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Whenever a mass meeting is held the streets are draped in blue or red chaos. The island becomes a massive, politicised street party. The atmosphere is euphoric. Beer and fast-food stalls are everywhere. All around are people draped in the party flag, their faces painted, children or girlfriends up on their shoulders, air-horns buzzing everywhere, flairs whistling 360 degrees around you, hardcore party music blitzes the clear skies and then, when it’s time for the leader to address the crowds, a hushed, church-like silence falls like a mist upon the crowds.
Mass meetings – do they even do such things anywhere but here? – are organised every weekend of the campaign by both parties. The two parties in Malta being the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. Leading up to the mass meeting there are the inevitable, island-engulfing carcades. Party supporters drive around the choked streets blaring out their horns, letting the party flag fly out their windows, and shouting out Viva this or Viva that at passersby.
When the election is over and the winner announced Malta transforms itself. And it is a beautiful thing to watch. No matter who wins. In Malta politics is a bona fide full-blown faith. And in Malta we don’t do faith by halves. Just as Malta is 98% Roman Catholic so our voter turnout averages 92%. This election it was just over the 92% mark. The highest anywhere in the world, apart from countries which have obligatory voting.
This year the snap election was won by the Labour Party. But that’s irrelevant. This isn’t a blog about politics but a blog about the cultural aesthetics of politics. As soon as the result was known – this year it was known early on, around 11 a.m., due to their being a large gap between the parties – Malta came to life. Carcades everywhere. Domineering music emanating from meek cars kitted out in speakers larger than a crocodile. Big, long vans set up for mobile parties. Hilarious, priceless political banners painted on the sides of scrap-fodder cars. The same cars painted in the colours of the parties.
My favourite sight, this year, was a bus with all its windows taken out so people could sit on the edge, drink, sing, smoke, as they paraded through the streets. Election day in Malta feels like Las Fallas, feels like a Champions League Final, feels like Mardi Gras, feels like VE-day, feels like, well, a lot of the good, fun things of life. And I would dearly recommend it to any tourist, any tourist who likes a colourful, holistic, sensory street-party, to visit Malta during election season. You won’t see anything like it. That’s a promise worth more than any politician’s.
We do things big – or as Trump would say, “bigly” (leave it to Mr. Small Hands to come up with new ways to say big) – in Malta, be it our religious festas, our football, our politics, our food portions, the lot. And it’s no surprise. We are masters of transforming the simple pleasures into something Baroque. We make the small, good things in life, grandiose. That’s what you get in an island that has been historically very poor and backward, but also infiltrated by the Baroque mentality imported by the Knights of St. John.
Yes, all the carcades, the large trucks, the massive mass meetings – these are all the heritage of a poor, lively people who lived side by side with the opulence of the princely Knights. And in this I think we’re one of a kind. No matter how modern we become. No matter how much like a modern, first-world nation we become, that will never change.
The people you’ll see dancing on people’s shoulders, party-flags draped around their shoulders, or around their heads, aren’t (just) average workers or working-class people; they’re your teachers, lawyers, businessmen, doctors and so on. Even the politicians themselves aren’t averse to getting in on it. Deep down, inside every Maltese person, no matter what class, there is an explosive personality desperate to live, enjoy and do it big. And this is something we ought to celebrate.
It might seem petty, crass, kitsch – but when you know the history behind it, when you look abroad, you begin to appreciate it as something poetic. It’s something I’m trying to celebrate in my novel. The story of a working-class man, obsessed, of course, with politics, raising a family in heated political times, caring nothing about ambition or progress, just wanting to ensure that he has enough money for a barbecue, a night out, and a beer-soaked night-long debate with his friends and family.
P.S. a necessary footnote: the photos I am showing here are of one party, the Labour Party, not for any political reason but because these were the scenes I could see right outside my doorstep. So it’s not political bias, it’s more laziness, on my side. But still, by all means, do enjoy them.