What causes the Cyrus switch

The Times of Malta, Friday, July 22, 2011 , by Michael Briguglio

The Cyrus switch is what happens when the parties in power are so similar that it is easy for their members to belong to either. Expect more.

So Cyrus Engerer – the young politician never afraid to speak his mind – has decided to shift from Nationalist to Labour. Changing one’s political allegiance, shifting one’s vote, is a reality in a democracy. Indeed, political parties constantly try to attract people who vote for other parties (or, increasingly, who don’t vote at all).

There are many reasons why this is done. For example, some do it because of ideology, others do it because they consider the election as a market of bidders ready to give the best favours, while others do it to improve their own political careers.

I agree with Mr Engerer that Lawrence Gonzi should not have voted against the divorce legislation in Parliament, particularly when it was the same Dr Gonzi who originally suggested a referendum. Indeed, I believe that Dr Gonzi’s no vote in Parliament is the biggest mistake he has done so far as Prime Minister. Not only does it show that Dr Gonzi’s confessional outlook is out-of-synch with contemporary Maltese society but, above all, it shows that, for him, the divorce referendum and parliamentary procedures were merely mathematical means in a futile attempt to keep Malta without the basic civil right of divorce.

Even though in the past I jokingly remarked to Mr Engerer that his “natural” party should be Alternattiva Demokratika, I was not at all surprised with his defection from PN to PL. But how will this affect his political aspirations and career?

Did Mr Engerer join Labour because it champions his pet issue, namely the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) persons? If this is the case, it is interesting to note that, to date, Labour has no clear policy in this regard. Notwithstanding the commendable activism of Labourites like Evarist Bartolo, PL leader Joseph Muscat’s recent comments on Xarabank were surely not music to the ears of autonomous LGBT activists. Maybe Mr Engerer is optimistic that he can convince Dr Muscat otherwise. Good luck to him.

Perhaps Mr Engerer joined Labour to become Sliema mayor? Theoretically, there is a possibility for Mr Engerer to become Sliema’s mayor but in this case he would most probably require the support not only of PL councillors but also of Nikki Dimech and Sandra Camilleri, the two former PN councillors. Mr Engerer was very much involved in the ousting of Mr Dimech as Sliema mayor. Would Mr Dimech “return” the compliment? And if Mr Engerer becomes mayor, what would happen next? Would he stand a chance in the 2013 local elections?

Perhaps Mr Engerer has a long-term plan to be elected in Parliament on the Labour ticket. Well, if he contests the 10th district he would have heavyweights such as Mr Bartolo, Michael Falzon and Gino Cauchi, just to mention a few. It would also be interesting to note that in the 12th district, Mr Bartolo will most probably have Dr Muscat and Deborah Schembri – the other new PL convert – contesting his same district.

I would not at all be surprised if in the coming weeks and months more political activists defect to Labour, especially since many are perceiving it to be the next party in government.

Yet, if a week is a long time in politics, the 20 months or so till the next election are unwritten. Politics is not an evolutionary straight line but a battlefield of ideology, strategy and interests.

The pace and swiftness of such defections only help confirm that, more often than not, the Nationalist and Labour parties are two sides of the same coin. Labour may be a bit more liberal than the PN on civil rights issues, a bit more inward looking on the economy and a bit more conservative on issues such as immigration but, otherwise, the PNPL represent a stagnant duopoly that will not be challenged by switches of the type Mr Engerer resorted to.

Both parties are financed through dubious mechanisms and are reluctant to have a proper accountable party financing system. Both parties are hell-bent on keeping an electoral system that acts in their egoistic interest at the expense of everyone else. And both parties have exempted themselves from data protection laws, which effectively means they are free to make use of the private data of citizens as they deem fit. With all talk of civil liberties, some prefer to climb the slippery slope towards a political career, which in the last instance, will only help retain the status quo.

In a way, Mr Engerer’s switch shows that AD remains the only party which is different from the rest, which has clear principles and for whom the need for progressive social change comes before other concerns such as personal advancement. With us, you know what you get. And being active with the Greens is more about giving than about taking.

The Greens are not in Parliament but we have been crucial in bringing about certain changes in Malta, such as environmental consciousness and successful environmental campaigns, EU accession and divorce. Just imagine what we could do if we are represented in Parliament.


The author, a sociologist, is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.