Following public declarations about “fat cats” close to the Nationalist Party who sought to derail his candidacy for the 2022 general elections, St Julian’s mayor, Albert Buttigieg, spoke to The Shift about the realities he faced throughout his political career, the direction he believes the PN must take, and the future of the country as a whole.
Buttigieg joined the Nationalist Party in 2013, at the behest of then-Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, a remarkable deviation from his 20-year stint in which he successfully studied to become a Franciscan friar and spent 13 years preaching the Order’s message.
Describing St Francis of Assisi as “an environmentalist, a pacifist and a social worker” who was “assertive” and “not afraid of anything”, buttigieg aspired to bring in those qualities into politics when he entered the political arena nine years ago.
He described how, during an existential crisis he had faced as a teenager, he had come across a saying which he adopted as a motto: ‘make the world a bit better than it is, leave it a bit better than you found it’.
“When Simon Busuttil invited me into politics back in 2013, I carried Franciscan values with me. Inclusion for all, environmentalism, peace and social justice inspire me to this day. St Francis’ struggle at the time remains relevant today, irrespective of whether you’re of Catholic faith or not,” Buttigieg said.
When asked what motivated such an unusual career trajectory, the mayor of St Julian’s explained how politics became a different way of implementing that same motto he had come across in his troubled teenage years.
“Politics is a powerful instrument that can make a huge difference and benefit the common good. Politics is about the common good, not individual benefit. That is why I’ve had difficulties with some people, including with my own Party, because I wanted to improve the common good,” he added.
Appearing on Newsbook’s radio show 103 Malta’s Heart, Buttigieg downplayed the schism between him and the P following his public claim that an influential figure within the Party had attempted to silence him.
He did not, however, bite his tongue when calling out major business dynasties like the Zammit Tabonas, the Apap Bolognas and the Fenechs, who have held tightly onto their wealth and influence over the country’s politics.
In his role as mayor of St Julian’s, Buttigieg has been consistently vocal about over-development, improper waste management in the infamously rowdy locality, and the uptake of public spaces for private gain, and he has openly supported and supported protests organised by civil society .
However, his aspiration to become an MP on the PN’s ticket was cut short, with the Party providing him with little to no visibility on its traditional media and pre-electoral rallies, he said.
When asked about the obstacles he faced both throughout his electoral campaign as well as his career as mayor, Buttigieg remained tight-lipped about his claims of “fat cats” seeking to silence him, insisting he did not wish to jeopardise the source who had informed him about it.
Nonetheless, he did not spare any criticism for the PN’s ties with big business interests in the country, warning that the Party would be “selling itself” if it fails to correct its current course of becoming more and more like the Labor Party’s brand of” champagne socialism”.
“The PN is making a Faustian pact: if it follows through with it, it will lose its identity, become soulless, and will no longer have any reason to exist,” Buttigieg said, speaking of how the PN should move away from clientelism and provide a radically different vision to what a Labor government offers.
“If people are offered a choice between two parties which are becoming more and more alike, people will choose to remain where they are right now. This is what happened during the last election – when people made their choice, they chose to remain where they are,” he added.
When asked about whether he ever felt pressured to compromise his values, Buttigieg stated this happens on a constant basis, arguing that generally, in their attempts at securing electoral popularity, both major parties end up compromising their integrity or “turning a blind eye” towards abuse.
“There was also regular pressure on the Nationalist Party for me to tone down my rhetoric about development, including within the Local Council. My answer is always the same: if it’s for the common good, then it’s needed. If it’s not, then it’s irrelevant,” he said.
In the last general elections, a new, significant trend in voting patterns emerged: while the PN lost 12,000 votes when compared to 2017, the PL lost 8,000 votes, with the number of abstentions almost doubling.
Buttigieg is a firm believer in the idea that the PN must first engage in “profound soul-searching” and develop “a vision that inspires” people, one that provides a real alternative to the regular abuse of the power of incumbency that is engaged in by the Labor Party.
“Nobody achieves anything by confining themselves to the status quo. If the PN wishes to truly become a political force that serves the greater good of the country, this is what needs to be done. Our democracy suffers without a solid Opposition, as otherwise the ruling party will run roughshod over everyone as it is presently doing. The PN must be courageous, and this does not seem to be happening,” the mayor said.
True to his Franciscan roots, the mayor argued that the real battleground the PN must focus on is the deterioration of the urban and rural environment of the country, and that the only way the party can become a force to be reckoned with is by permanently cutting off its “servile” relationship with major developers who only donate to parties for their own benefit.
Buttigieg also spoke of how the PN must fill the gap to address disillusioned voters who did not feel represented by either major party. The only way this could be done, he argues, is if the PN listens to people’s needs and sets about attending to them, without fear or favour.
“If we keep going in this direction, the result will be more diffidence in the major parties, because people can see for themselves what is going on. These practices will continue increasing this gap and we will continue giving politics a bad name,” Buttigieg said.