What was the leaders’ debate in a while, was the first of four major debates for the 2022 election campaign which took place at the University of Malta, with all of them including Prime Minister and PL leader, Robert Abela, and Leader of the Opposition and PN leader, Bernard Grech.
However, the debate which took place at the University of Malta can be set apart from those which followed it, as it is the only one that will have included the leaders of third parties debating alongside Abela and Grech.
In the case of this particular debate, these leaders were:
- ADPD Chairperson, Carmel Cacopardo
- Partit Popolari leader, Paul Salamone
- Partit ABBA leader, Ivan Grech Mintoff
Surprisingly enough, what preceded the debate stirred up the most controversy when compared to the contents of the debate itself. A considerable outpouring of individuals rushing to register a spot at Sir Temi Zammit Hall led to the University of Malta’s online database, ESIMS, crashing and leading to many being completely unable to register their attendance for the debate, or failing to do so in time. In addition to this, the debate generated a good amount of uproar due to the progressive political party, Volt Malta, being barred from participating in the debate.
This is the case as it could not satisfy the rules set out by the Malta University Debating Union (MUDU) which states that political parties which are represented in such debates must have candidates running on all 13 of Malta’s electoral districts.
Together with Volt Malta, other independent candidates such as Professor Arnold Cassola and Nazzareno Bonnici (Zaren tal-Akjla) were barred from even attending the debate. The same can be said for students who had already registered their attendance, and journalists who were not allowed to enter the venue, whilst photographers from numerous news and media outlets could only enter to take a few photos at the very start of the debate.
By now, many had garnered the opinion that the debate was quite un-democratic in relation to the aforementioned components of it, but only more was yet to follow. Together with what’s already been said, even more controversy was stirred up on the day of the debate itself, when several seats in Sir Temi Zammit Hall remained empty and students who had either registered or wished to attend the debate were denied entry, with the remaining spaces being taken up by individuals representing the major political parties, the Labour and Nationalist parties, and people who aren’t even enrolled students at the University of Malta.
Having consisted of several chants, cheers and even boo’s, there were moments where the debate felt more like a partisan mass meeting rather than being a critical debate. What can be said for sure, is that law student Yasmine Ellul did a splendid job of holding the leaders’ feet to the fire and moderated the debate in a very structured and orderly manner, with it worth noting that some of the leaders on the debate were far from cooperative with the rules under which the debate was operating.
In terms of the commentary which has been made so far regarding the behaviour displayed during the debate by the audience which was present, many have said that these actions showed the need for more investment in critical thinking within Malta’s education system and the extent to which partisan mentalities have cemented themselves into Maltese society.
Whilst it can be said that the behaviour which was displayed was unbecoming of the educational institution which the University of Malta is meant to be, it ought to not be projected as a sort of beacon of excellence where people are any less deserving than anyone else of gaining entry into University because of their political views and academic background, as both of these traits ought to be characterised by diversity and inclusion. There’s certainly no doubt that Maltese society contains elements of ignorance, with these elements often being exhibited by partisanship and tribalism which is also not lacking within the Maltese political scene.
These are however just that, elements, and are in no way representative of Malta as a whole. Receiving an education ought to never be conflated with the acquisition of intelligence, and the lack thereof is not necessarily indicative of just a failing education system but is accompanied by other societal and cultural factors which warrant consideration as well.
In relation to the performance of the party leaders themselves, many observed the confrontational dynamic which developed between Abela and Grech, which remained consistent throughout the entire debate. As opposed to concretely answering the questions which were put to them, both leaders resorted to attacking each other with partisan jabs and jibes and producing the staple talking points which have dominated the entirety of the election campaign so far.
More direct answers came out of Salamone and Cacopardo in relation to the questions which were put to them, whilst Grech Mintoff engaged in a head-on confrontation with Abela, and prefaced his interventions with ABBA’s policy proposals and rhetoric. Perhaps the only interaction in which Grech Mintoff extended the aforementioned dynamic to both Abela and Grech was when the topic of abortion was brought up during the debate. Together with abortion, other issues which were tackled included public transport, affordable housing, the quality of life, the environment and overdevelopment, the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the proposed tunnel connecting Malta and Gozo, and sexual health and education.
For it to have been the first debate of the entire election campaign, the University Election Leaders Debate was the only one to have included other leaders apart from Abela and Grech, thus ensuring that it went beyond the partisan rhetoric which has characterised this election, and delved into the issues being put at the forefront of this campaign, and being addressed in the electoral manifestoes of the respective political parties which are contesting this general election.
Written by: Jacob Callus
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