Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Independent: Interview: StandUp: Changing the way of doing politics
Article published on 06 June 2011 by Francesca Vella.

Many young people the world over are disillusioned by politics. In Malta, in particular, people are fed up with the way politicians from the two major parties are constantly contradicting each other, Nikita Alamango and Cyrus Engerer tell Francesca Vella. Together with other people with different political views, these two young people created the group StandUp, which was set up to campaign in favour of divorce. But now that the referendum is over, this group of young people feel they still need to 'stand up', discuss and campaign in favour of other civil liberties.

I met Nikita, a member on the PL executive committee, and Cyrus, the Sliema deputy mayor, next to the 'Love' monument in Spinola, St Julian's, where they were immediately stopped by two people who wanted to thank them for their work in the campaign in the run-up to the divorce referendum. They were the main faces of StandUp during the divorce campaign, and people thought they were a couple.

Cyrus tells me, "I suppose this is what keeps us going – it is really good to know that we helped people who are suffering. The campaign was tiring, but very rewarding. Having made a difference, even to just one person, is great.

"When the referendum result was announced, I got this SMS: 'Thank you Cyrus. For the first time in 10 years you make me and my children smile in happiness. I will never forget you.' That is what really makes us want to continue working to help people".

Nikita adds that she believes in the true meaning of serving others. The two are from different political parties, but they have come together, along with other young people, to fight for what they both believe is right.

Similarly, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Evarist Bartolo, Michael Falzon and Michael Briguglio worked together as part of the main pro-divorce movement, Iva għad-Divorzju, Iva għaż-Żwieġ (Yes to Divorce, Yes to Marriage).

Nikita and Cyrus explain that these people did an excellent job to prove that people from different parties can work together on particular issues, and StandUp is trying to continue developing this idea.

Naturally, they do not agree on everything, such as, for instance, the way the government tackled the issue of utility bills.

"They are too expensive," says Nikita.

"They are," replies Cyrus, "but they are an indication of a reality – that is the price of oil".

During the interview, the two also argue about Labour leader Joseph Muscat and the way he tackles certain things related to equality and tolerance.

Nikita: "Joseph Muscat does have the courage to talk about issues that are not necessarily popular."

In response, Cyrus tells her that he does talk about certain things, but he doesn't act on them, while Nikita quickly adds: "He cannot, he's not in government".

Cyrus: "The PL will be writing an electoral manifesto…"

"When we write and it is published, you can criticise it," Nikita replies, in true political style.

At this point, Cyrus points out that they sound like a married couple.

What if they have a different opinion on a particular issue to that of their party?

Cyrus explains that you always get positive and negative feedback, no matter what you do. However, he feels he cannot fail to 'stand up' for something he believes is a human, civil right.

Nikita talks about the fact that people often label you; being in politics is not easy, and the minute you do something, you are immediately labelled.

In fact, Cyrus recalls a particular incident, saying that after StandUp was set up, he had attended a PN seminar and someone asked him why he had turned up, saying: "Aren't you now a Labourite? You should leave".

"There is obviously nothing wrong with being a Labourite. However I was offended: Just because I was fighting in favour of divorce and the PN's position was against didn't mean that I no longer belonged to the party."

But both himself and Nikita are determined to continue working together on certain issues they both agree upon. They feel that people are fed up with the way politicians from different political parties constantly contradict each other.

"My place is within the PN – after all I agree with the party on most issues; but I will continue fighting to change the party's mentality on issues related to civil liberties."

Nikita, on her part, brings up the issue of gay marriage, saying that while Labour leader Joseph Muscat will probably propose civil partnerships, she will fight for gay marriage.

Cyrus says he has started to see a shift with respect to people's involvement in politics.

"We had decades of Nationalists against Labourites, now we're shifting to liberals against conservatives."

Cyrus said he feels that the political class is out of sync with reality, and the two main parties are afraid of taking certain decisions where morality may be involved. The fact that Malta is finally set to have a divorce legislation, in the year 2011, actually proves this, he said.

But it boils down to the fact that there is no proper separation between church and state. While the Church has the right and the duty to express its views, Nikita and Cyrus oppose the scaremongering aspect

Nikita spoke about the hard work that went into the campaign, saying that they received numerous messages and phone calls from people who expressed their gratitude because StandUp was their 'voice'. People tell you their stories and they open up to you, she said, adding that a lot of work was done through Facebook and StandUp's blog.

So what's next for StandUp?

The group will definitely be fighting for gay rights, as well as rights related to in vitro fertilisation (IVF). But it will also be active against censorship, for instance.

"We want to work for civil liberties, tolerance and equality," explains Nikita, adding however, that the most important thing at the moment is to make sure the divorce Bill goes through, because anything could happen.

Having MPs vote against the divorce Bill in parliament is unacceptable to Nikita and Cyrus.

"MPs should have legislated on divorce without having to go for a referendum, as one of the roles of MPs is to safeguard the rights of minorities. Now that the people have spoken clearly in a referendum, it is unacceptable to have some MPs vote against. What kind of democracy is this?" asked Cyrus.

He questions whether the time has come to amend the Constitution with respect to religion. The state has the duty to serve everyone, not only Catholics, Cyrus points out, while Nikita adds that Malta is not a truly secular state.

In fact, the Constitution says: "The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion… The authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong… Religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all state schools as part of compulsory education".

The Constitution shouldn't put Catholics in a privileged position; there are Maltese people who are not Catholic, they point out.

I ask whether they feel that Maltese people are tolerant.

Cyrus explains that while civil liberties are missing from the country's laws, Maltese people are quite tolerant in certain respects.

"I'm gay and when I'm out with my boyfriend and we hold hands, it's fine. We don't get bad looks. In this sense, people are very tolerant. In Spain, on the other hand, where the laws treat homosexuals and heterosexuals equally, walking in the street with my boyfriend is uncomfortable. People look at you like you're an alien or something. But that doesn't happen much in Malta."

On the other hand, he said he believes a number of Maltese people are prejudiced against Muslims, Arabs and black people.

Nikita points out that a few years back, people would find it very hard to even talk about certain things like gay relationships, divorce, separation and so on.

"Nowadays it is very difficult however, to not know anyone who is gay, separated, cohabiting, or having children out of wedlock. People start to adapt to realities they start becoming familiar with. We have to be altruistic and there is hope."


• Nikita Alamango, 21, is currently reading for a BSc in Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

• She is a member of the national executive of the Labour Party for the third consecutive year and also the international secretary of the Labour youth forum.

• She was also active in NGOs such as the national youth council.


• Cyrus Engerer, 29, is Sliema deputy mayor.

• He holds a degree in European Studies and Communications from the University of Malta and a Masters in European Politics from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.

• Currently, he works as an EU-fund consultant and project manager within his own firm, Europoint, after having gained experience as an EU-funds project manager at the Office of the Prime Minister.

• He also worked as the media and communications coordinator for MEUSAC, the Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee.

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