Valletta, Malta — ``Politics here is like a soccer match,'' says Jimmy, a Maltese sailor. ``Everyone is jumping and screaming for his side and ready to throw a punch at anyone who's against him.'' One of the few observations the Maltese seem to agree on these days is that their political battle -- over how this tiny Mediterranean island should be run -- has become an obsession.
Malta's 320,000 people seem evenly split in identifying with either the ruling socialist Malta Labor Party or the Christian Democratic Nationalists.
Ironically, the Maltese are not sharply divided on ideology. Both parties call for modernization and greater economic equality within Malta's Roman Catholic traditions. But what was once a rivalry between personalities and institutions has turned into a battle over the essentials of Maltese democracy.
Malta's Catholic schools are the most recent and divisive issue in the conflict. Last summer, then Deputy Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici (now prime minister, since the resignation last month of Dom Mintoff) ordered the church to stop charging tuition, saying they discriminated against poor families.
A four-month crisis ensued. The government ordered the church to begin placing its schools under state control. Malta's archbishop refused. When the government withdrew the licenses of eight Catholic secondary schools, the church announced that teachers and pupils would attend anyway.
Mr. Mifsud Bonnici responded by sending out leaflets listing the names and addresses of the church-school teachers. When teachers received threats from Labor supporters and violence seemed certain, the archbishop ordered all Catholic schools shut. Public-school teachers went on strike, partly in sympathy.
In late September, in the presence of Mifsud Bonnici and police, a mob of workers workers sacked law court offices before moving to the archbishop's curia. The government denied any official complicity in the attacks.
In November the church and government reached a temporary agreement to allow all schools to open. But tension has remained high, partly over a series of unsolved bombings against embassies, priests' homes, Nationalist Party offices, and the government computer center.
In interviews, Mifsud Bonnici accused the Nationalists of setting the bombs to discredit the government, and government spokesman Paul Mifsud implied the archbishop might be implicated. But they could offer no evidence to support their claims.
Under former Prime Minister Mintoff, the Maltese church was considered a medieval bulwark for Malta's wealthy elite. Mintoff's government trimmed back its role, taking over church-run hospitals, expelling the theology school from the university, abolishing several religious holidays, and this year trying to confiscate church lands. Mifsud Bonnici is not expected to alter those polices.
But the church clearly commands strong loyalties. A Gallup poll early last year showed that 90 percent of Maltese attend mass at least once a week.
Mintoff has long been bitter toward the church. In the 1960s a former archbishop decreed it a mortal sin to vote for Labor.
Many Maltese, and Western diplomats, say Mintoff steadily chipped away at democracy, especially since the disputed 1981 elections. Because of a last-minute change in electoral boundaries, Labor captured a majority of parliamentary seats despite losing the popular vote.
At the same time, Labor charged ``foreign interference'' on the Nationalists' behalf in the elections. Mintoff said such interference could be a reason to call off future elections.
The Nationalists, the church, and many citizens echo the sentiments of a Valletta insurance agent who says: ``The government rules by intimidating you in everything you do. You have to support them, or you can't get a job, a business license, a building permit, a telephone installation, or a place in the university for your child.''
Many people are alarmed at alleged harassment and violence by Labor supporters.
In recent years, the home of Nationalist leader Eddie Fenech Adami was ransacked and the independent Times newspaper burned down. No arrests were made, despite the presence of police. In an interview, Mifsud Bonnici played down the importance of Malta's internal strife:
``It's being inflated unduly by the foreign press because they are not aware of the local circumstances and the local character of the people.''