Tuesday, 1st November 2011
by F Oliva
With a general election round the corner, Leader of the Opposition Fabian Picardo’s political strategy is beginning to come into clearer focus. He has long realised that the GSLP in its current format was an unelectable political proposition. With Bossano having become a type of Michael Foot of local politics leading a sclerotic party that had its roots in the Gibraltar of the 1960’s, with an outdated dogmatic intransigence in relations with Spain, and a style of government as centralised and authoritarian as anything ever seen locally, he started to have second thoughts about whether the perceived electoral advantage of carrying the old man in the line-up (probably between 20-25% block vote), would ultimately turn out to be too unpalatable, even costly in political terms, given the inescapable paradox for the champion of change, who may have voluntarily planted his own combustible Trojan Horse right at the core of his message for renovation. Clearly Bossano’s eagerness for acting as a ‘hand-break’ since ousted from office in 1996 could in this context begin to acquire a new political meaning, whatever the outcome of the election.
But at the same time, he was also fully aware of the intrinsic weakness of his own position: handpicked by Bossano to succeed him, he had no roots as a socialist or any trade union background whatsoever. With the party apparatus, the party executive, activists, the party membership, the newspaper, the network of trade union shop stewards and the various satellite one-issue groups owing firm allegiance to Bossano and not him perhaps in as much as 90%, his position without any kind of meaningful support, was precarious. Depicted by his opponents as a ‘champagne’ socialist he clearly does not fill the bill of the ‘calentita’ socialist, and sees himself as evolving from trademark ‘Bossanismo’ on critical issues like the Gibraltarian identity where the GSLP had held obdurately sectarian positions to date.
Revealingly, it is in the electorally insignificant Liberal Party, his ‘real’ party, where he has found unqualified support and his closest allies. To remind readers, it is worth recalling that Picardo, a member of the Liberal Party, and founder member of the National Party before that, only parachuted into Watergardens because of a series of circumstances, notably the 2003 Labour Party crisis that led to a musical chairs rearrangement of personnel from both organisations, which resulted in Picardo jumping into the socialist party and Steven Marin a former GSLP stalwart whose return to the fold was vetoed, ending up in the Liberal Party. Ironically, someone like Daniel Feetham accrued many more years of socialist militancy in the GSLP than Picardo.
The reform of the GSLP has been as much a political dilemma as a minefield that has given Picardo many hours of headache and is something that he has ultimately not been able to carry out in the conventional sense. In other words the master reformist is locked in a terrible contradiction: although vowing to unleash a programme of radical change on Gibraltar – some of his closest aides have even pronounced the dreadful word ‘revolution’ – he cannot it seems, operate in his own backyard, incapable of purging his party of its obsolete elements. But he has opted for the next best thing, securing the Bossano vote and building a new party within the party and rather than flush out, is seeking to dilute the Bossano influence to make it progressively irrelevant. It is a very risky political strategy and as with everything with Picardo a gamble with unpredictable results.
Picardo’s only chance of success from his point of view given the shaky ground he was treading, has essentially consisted in a scheme to surreptitiously ‘de-GSLPcize’ the GSLP, to remove the tablecloth from the table without moving away any of the objects on it. A blitz of old school agit-prop, using new technologies, marketing styles, sound-bytes and social networks, bombarding the media with policy documents, open-handed assurances to every sectorial interest group in the community, announcements ‘a bombo y platillo’, the creation of numerous quangos, a commitment to release official government papers, promises to build a whole array of facilities and infrastructure, paved the way for his master plan. At the same time rather than eliminate the overtly indigestible elements, what he has done in a swift clean stroke has been to bring in an influx of what he likes referring to as exponents of ‘middle-Gibraltar’, de-ideologized individuals most of whom have no previous known political background or activity, and far removed from the profile of the traditional GSLP member. These ‘closet-socialists’ have only one thing in common, their dislike of Caruana and their desire to install Picardo at Convent Place. Crucially their 100% loyalty to Picardo over Bossano makes them invaluable in his campaign to stamp his authority on a party he does not control and make himself with its reins. Thus the likes of John Cortes, Joe Cortes, Lionel Perez, Norbert Borge, ‘Mr’ Jones, and to a lesser extent former PDP executive member Marilou Guerrero whom he will be hoping to manoeuvre – his long term political viability depends on it – onto the slate of candidates.
In effect the GSLP is fast becoming an organisation harbouring two distinct factions – a Bossano faction and a Picardo faction. But Picardo should brace himself for a backlash and not underestimate the capacity of the unmovable, irredeemable ‘old guard’ to react. As observers of politics know well enough, a political adversary is someone who sits opposite you in parliament, whereas the political enemy is the one you have sitting next to you.
But Picardo’s problems are not just with the structure of his political organisation. In order to implement his idealistic and gargantuan programme of reform, he would need to create a gigantic bureaucracy of the type that has never been seen in Gibraltar before. A gigantic and hugely expensive bureaucracy to boot that will have to be funded by the taxpayer and there is no guarantee – there is no such thing as parliamentary perfection, and utopia is not something that can be legislated – that he would achieve any of the objectives he is setting himself out to achieve.
Additionally if by its very dynamics, Gibraltar’s political system has created in the population insatiable expectations of benefits, rights and privileges, Picardo’s electoral strategy (backed by propaganda that depicts him as a type of Obama local equivalent who will right every wrong, correct every anomaly, settle every grievance and quash every injustice), has been to appeal to that base instinct to the extent that it could well grow exponentially by the end of the election campaign, and he runs the risk of creating a voracious monster – ungrateful in the extreme at that – that he himself will be barely able to satisfy if elected to power, and which could end up devouring his own political project.
And on the question of the Anti-Corruption Authority, this seems an unnecessary extravagance and gives the impression that it is the kind of thing the FBI would have set up in the Chicago of the 1920’s. But in modern day Gibraltar? It is something that will no doubt be lapped up by Gibraltar’s enemies abroad and those who have refused to recognise how much Gibraltar has cleaned up its act and how solid our international reputation has become since the end of the fast launch era.
Picardo’s fixation with the Westminster model and his constant annoying references to how things are done in UK (and also to the US which beggar belief), seems like a throwback to an idyllic past when Westminster was considered the mother of all parliaments and the British parliamentary system served an example to the rest of the world. That time is long past with the corruption scandals whether it be the ‘MPs expenses allowances’ affair or ‘cash for questions’ etc, which has rocked the British political class and exposed the deep rooted sleaze that has corroded the virtues of a long forgotten past. Perhaps he could have looked at other models because this one is utterly discredited. The corruption as we all know is not circumscribed to the political class. The News of the World scandal has also exposed the corrupt practices of the press and sectors of the Metropolitan Police. So it does not seem wise at this juncture to be looking at UK as a role model or example to be followed in anything at all.
On the subject of parliamentary reform which judging by the empty public gallery whenever the House is in session, does not capture the public imagination in any significant manner, it is doubtful whether the wholesale transference and adaptation of Westminster mechanisms as suggested by Picardo who highlights this as one of the central pieces of his reform jig-saw, will have ordinary citizens who have far more important things to contend with, celebrating in the streets.
Perhaps it would be unfair to say that Picardo’s saddle bags are not loaded with good intentions and an idealistic disposition to improve the lot of his fellow men. But it is on political substance rather than style and delivery where he must still answer very stern questions that no doubt the electorate will be posing in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, and this is something that can be corrected by experience, there appears to be an element of naivety and an unrealistic assessment of just how difficult, selfish and unreasonable people can be, a lesson which cannot be fully appreciated in opposition.
In ideological terms the GSLP-Liberal Alliance is an inconceivable mésalliance and a complete misnomer (a political oxymoron?) as it is utterly incongruous for liberals and socialists to share a political platform and it is also quite dreadful to see liberals sitting around a mug presumably at the GSLP offices, with a picture of the communist messiah and 60’s icon Che Guevara. Perhaps some of these thinking liberals should care to check recent bibliography on this cold-blooded Stalinist especially that of the Spanish historian Fernando Diaz Villanueva where he is portrayed as a criminal fanatic who ruthlessly disposed of his political opponents. Any liberal worth the name would react like a vampire to garlic…