Reforming a two-party Parliament

Malta’s electoral system has, over the years, been transformed into a duopoly. Discrimination is inbuilt into electoral legislation in order to effectively ensure that Parliament remains a two-party affair. It is discrimination by design. It is not accidental but specifically intended.

Our electoral system (STV: Single Transferable Vote) started off being applied in 1921 as one focused on the individual candidate, generally ignoring the political parties. Over the years a number of important changes shifted the focus of the STV from the individual candidate to the political party.

The first such change was carried out prior to the 1976 general elections: the electoral ballot paper was then redesigned such that same party candidates started being grouped together with a colour code identifying the different political parties. This was a radical change as up to that point, for over fifty years, all candidates in an electoral district were listed alphabetically. Up till that point it was a common occurrence for votes to switch from one party to the other in successive counts as the semi-literate voter, would not always distinguish between one party candidate and the candidates from other parties. As a result, many a parliamentary seat was lost or switched allegiance over the years.

The second change took place in 1987 and was fine-tuned in subsequent years. It started off as a reaction to the impact of jerrymandering of electoral districts, specifically the 1981 general election result. Originally it was designed as a constitutional guarantee for majority rule, ensuring that whichever political party surpassed the 50 per cent vote count it would be guaranteed a majority of parliamentary seats. Subsequently it was developed into a formula for ensuring proportionality between first count votes and parliamentary seats. There is however an important condition attached: this is only applicable if just two political parties make it to parliament. The moment that a third one gains just one seat, no proportionality is guaranteed, except in one specific instant: when a political party obtains in excess of the 50 per cent mark it is still guaranteed a majority of Parliamentary seats. Our Constitution expects that the rest have to lump it.

The third change is in the pipeline. It involves an additional adjustment: a gender balance mechanism. A maximum of twelve parliamentary seats will be added to the total to represent the under-represented gender! Yes, you have guessed: they will be split equally between the duopoly. In addition, the seats will not be available for distribution the moment a third political party makes it into parliament.

Let me be very clear. Proportionality between votes cast and parliamentary seats won is essential. Likewise, it is essential to address the gender imbalance in our parliament. However, both adjustments can be done fairly, without any discrimination, and importantly without increasing the size of Parliament astronomically as will inevitably happen at the next general election if only two political parties make it to Parliament. In fact, it is perfectly possible not to have any increase in size of Parliament at all if the appropriate changes are carried out!

Over the years the political party which I lead has made several proposals on these matters. The latest proposal was made in the context of the public consultation on addressing gender imbalance in Parliament. Even then we emphasised that tinkering with the electoral system and adding top-ups would not solve anything. A complete overhaul of the system is required. Instead, the “gender balance reform” ended up advocating “as little as possible disruption of the electoral system”. Government and Opposition agreed to reinforce the existing discrimination in our electoral system.

Unfortunately, our proposals have been ignored once more and we have no choice but to resort to our Courts to address a blatantly discriminatory electoral system imposed on us by Labour and Nationalist Members of Parliament. On such matters they always agree.

In such circumstances fragmentation of the political spectrum is the worst possible option for those who want to emphasise a specific point. Those who end up playing the “independent” are pawns of the duopoly, unwittingly reinforcing the two-party system. They end up siphoning votes and thereby deliberately weakening a potential third voice which can make it to Parliament. The merger between AD and PD in the past months is the appropriate antidote in such circumstances.

Instead of focusing on minor differences it would be appropriate if all of us give more weight to the overall picture. It is an uphill struggle, but we should not be deterred!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday 30 May 2021

Ma’ Reno Bugeja: lil hinn mill-bebbux

Reno ġurnalista b’esperjenza li għandi kull rispett lejh. Ikun ippreparat sewwa biex ikun jista’ jindirizza l-argument quddiemu.

L-intervista kienet iffukata fuq l-ADPD u l-futur tiegħu. X’inhi r-raġuni għall-fatt li minkejja dawn is-snin kollha għadna partit żgħir?

Tul l-intervista Reno, b’sengħa, kontinwament ipprovokani biex joħroġ l-argumenti u l-ispjegazzjonijiet tiegħi.

Il-ħin ma taraħx għaddej għax l-argumenti jintiżġu flimkien b’ħeffa kbira b’mod li sat-tmiem jidher quddiemek mużajk ta’ argumenti li jagħti stampa ċara.

Id-diffikultajiet li niffaċċjaw huma essenzjalment tnejn.

L-ewwel hemm sistema elettorali li tul is-snin fittxet dejjem li tikkonsolida l-ħakma ta’ żewġ partiti fuq il-pajjiż u l-istituzzjonijiet tiegħu.

It-tieni hemm il-frammentazzjoni. Dawk li jaħsbuha bħalna huma mifruxa. Tul is-snin dejjem kien hemm diffikulta biex ninġabru flimkien. L-għaqda bejn l-Alternattiva Demokratika u l-Partit Demokratiku f’dan is-sens kien pass kbir il-quddiem. Ovvjament hemm ħafna iktar xi jsir biex l-ilħna progressivi jinġabru flimkien.

L-intervista serviet biex nispjega ukoll il-kuntrast politiku tagħna ma dak tal-partiti l-oħra.

Tkellimt ftit dwar l-ambjent. Emfasizzajt li l-ambjent għalina jmur lil hinn mill-apprezzament tal-bebbux, id-dud u l-fjuri. L-apprezzament u l-ħarsien tal-ekoloġija huwa importanti ħafna f’ħidmietna. Imma l-ħarsien tal-ambjent ifisser ukoll il-ħarsien u t-titjib fil-kwalità tal-ħajja, tagħna u tal-ġenerazzjonijiet ta’ warajna.

Tkellimna fit-tul, madwar 40 minuta.

Issibu l-ħsibijiet dwar kif il-pajjiż qed isir dipendenti fuq l-evażjoni tat-taxxa. Nafferma għal darba oħra li l-iskema tal-bejgħ taċ-ċittadinanza mhiex aċċettabbli għalina. Hi prostituzzjoni tal-pajjiż.

Hemm ukoll kummenti dwar l-abort u kif dan fil-prattika diġa qed isir fl-isptar Mater Dei.

Il-ħidma politika tagħna tkompli. Pass pass nimxu l-quddiem.

The last straw

The situation is now unbearable. The discriminatory gender mechanism introduced in the Constitution by consent of the PNPL duopoly is definitely the last straw. The PNPL duopoly have now been at it for quite some time: they are undermining our very democracy.

Some years back they introduced the proportionality adjustment mechanism in the Constitution. They fine-tuned it over the years. Yet it is only applicable when just two political parties make it to parliament. The moment that a third party makes it to parliament the Constitution ceases to guarantee proportionality except to the one party which obtains over fifty per cent of the votes in a general election. All the others are excluded from benefitting from the proportionality adjustment mechanism.

Act XXII of 2021, given the Presidential assent on the 20 April 2021, introduces another adjustment mechanism to general election results. It is a gender adjustment mechanism and is likewise applicable when candidates of two political parties make it to Parliament.

Twelve additional members of Parliament will be added from the under-represented sex. These will “be apportioned equally between the absolute majority party or the relative majority party and the minority party”. There is no provision for the applicability of the gender adjustment mechanism when parliament is made up of more than two political parties.

Way back in March 2019 government had set up a “Technical Committee for the Strengthening of Democracy” which was entrusted to draw up proposals on the need to achieve gender balance in parliament. In July of the same year, after an exercise in public consultation, this Technical Committee published its findings and final proposals.

The Technical Committee in its report acknowledges the receipt of a position paper submitted by the Maltese Green Party which emphasised the need of a “broader electoral reform” than the one under consideration. Unfortunately, the Technical Committee failed to engage and discuss the only alternative submitted to its entrenched position. An alternative which could possibly have delivered a solution without creating additional discrimination was ignored completely.

The Technical Committee’s proposal, which was eventually adopted by parliament, adds another layer of discrimination to our electoral laws. To date proportionality is only constitutionally guaranteed to political parties in a two-party parliament.  The second layer of discrimination will likewise guarantee a gender balance only when two political parties are present in parliament.

Encouraging gender balance is an important objective which I and all my colleagues share. It cannot however be the cause of creating further discrimination in our electoral legislation. This was a unique opportunity which could have been utilised by the so-called “Technical Committee for the Strengthening of Democracy” to eradicate the existent electoral discrimination rather than further strengthen it. As a result, the Technical Committee ended up strengthening the existent parliamentary duopoly.

It is unacceptable that the electoral law treats us differently from the large parties. Equality before the law is supposed to be a basic democratic principle underpinning all legislation.

The electoral system has been treating us unfairly for too long a time. Adding further to this unfairness is definitely the last straw. It is now time to address this unfairness head-on and possibly settle matters once and for all.

With this in mind we are planning to challenge constitutionally the two adjustment electoral mechanisms as both of them are designed to function as discriminatory tools.

It is however possible to have both proportionality and gender balance in our parliament without making use of discriminatory action.

Unfortunately, the PLPN duopoly have not been able to deliver fairness in our electoral system. The Courts are our only remaining hope to address and remove discrimination from electoral legislation.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 25 April 2021