Can we eradicate political clientelism?

The scourge of political clientelism has been with us since the dawn of recorded history. Ordinary people have always sought the patronage of the powerful in order to further their own personal interests. Unfortunately, this problem is still with us today and seems to be an ingrained characteristic of the mentality of a section of the Maltese population. Yet, faced with this thorny problem, we cannot fatalistically accept it as a traditional aspect of politics and simply do nothing about it. If we want clean politics and politics of integrity, clientelism has to be eradicated once and for all.

Political clientelism takes many forms. Some people simply ask for relatively small favours such as being unfairly put at the top of a waiting list for a service from the government. Others ask for a job or a promotion they are not qualified for. Still, others bargain for even higher stakes: a lucrative government contract; approval for erecting a building which does not respect existing building regulations; turning a Nelson’s eye to tax evasion; etc. There is also one other form of political clientelism which is not always mentioned: seeking political patronage to avoid being discriminated against, to avoid vindictive acts by people in power.

Here, it is interesting to note that a survey carried out between October and November, 2020 for the European Union by the civil society organisation Transparency International found that a third of all Maltese admitted that last year (2020), they used personal connections to access a public service, while more than half said that they feared retaliation if they reported corruption. On the other hand, a very encouraging finding was that some 56% believe that the Maltese Government is doing a good job in fighting corruption.

If we want clean politics and politics of integrity, clientelism has to be eradicated once and for all.

One must point out that it is a mistake to regard all politicians as encouraging clientelism. While it is true that the proportional representation system is one which encourages a rat-race between candidates of the same political party, it is also true that the majority of politicians are men and women of integrity. However, there has always been a minority willing to entertain requests for patronage in exchange for political support at elections.

The first step

As such, the first step towards eliminating political clientelism has to be initiated by the political parties themselves, by ensuring that the candidates whom they present to contest elections are very well vetted and confirmed as being of the highest integrity. This has not always been the case as, in their frenzy to win as many votes as possible, political parties have sometimes accepted candidates with dubious moral backgrounds. Such totally unscrupulous politicians who put their political advancement and survival before everything else are the people who encourage political patronage in exchange for votes at elections. Having as many politicians of integrity as possible would go a long way towards eradicating political clientelism in the Maltese Islands.

Some people will ask me whether it would be feasible to change Malta’s proportional representation system, introduced by the British colonial administration, for another system which does not encourage political clientelism. This is not recommendable as our present system is now well established and the Maltese population is also quite used to it. Moreover, proportional representation has been widely adopted in many countries because it is a very fair system of representation. It avoids an unfair situation where some people win representation, with the rest being left out. Furthermore, legislatures will reflect the real voting strength of the various contesting political parties. Proportional representation also ensures more choices for voters and that no vote is wasted. This, in turn, encourages higher levels of voting.

Proportional representation ensures more choices for voters and that no vote is wasted. This, in turn, encourages higher levels of voting.

Political canvassing

So, what else can we do to eliminate political clientelism? – A major cause of this problem is the fact that political candidates use canvassers before and during elections to promote their interests. These canvassers spend a lot of time and energy going around towns and villages distributing propaganda leaflets, introducing candidates to potential voters, and helping candidates in their everyday political needs during election time. Obviously, they do this because they expect to be handsomely rewarded if their candidate is successful at the elections.

So, who do you substitute political canvassers with? – I would suggest that political parties train a cadre of people of unimpeached integrity and relevant qualifications to support each candidate contesting the election. There would be an agreement that these people would be paid for their services by the political parties themselves and it would be made amply clear that their services would no longer be required after the elections and that they were not to expect any other form of political compensation for their efforts.

If this would be too much of a financial burden on political parties, State support could be provided to ensure the proper functioning of this system. Of course, if some of these helpers of candidates were to be qualified and experienced enough to apply for positions within ministries and other public entities falling under the jurisdiction of their former candidates whom they had helped during a general election, they would not be excluded from doing so. However, this fact would not be given weight in the final classification of candidates which would be based on meritocracy. Utopian? – Maybe, but certainly worth giving a try.

Total transparency during the whole process of decision-making as to who should qualify for a public service and who should not, would also go a long way towards the eradication of all forms of clientelism leading to corruption. This would also ensure that public officers making the decision would be held accountable to the general public for their actions. The whole process of decision-making should be open to public scrutiny and the criteria upon which such decisions are based should be written down beforehand and should also be made available to the media and the general public.


Another remedy for the elimination of clientelism is education. I personally successfully contested two local council elections and served as a Labour Party local councillor and minority leader for seven years. One of the things I really hated during that period was that people used to approach me with the warning: “See that the party takes care of our own supporters!” (“Ara li l-partit jieħu ħsieb in-nies tagħna!”). This is something common to all political parties. It is a fact that many people in Malta regard politics as an extension of the marketplace. You “sell” your vote in exchange for something else. It is incredible how in the year 2021, there are still so many people who believe that government is elected to serve, first and foremost, its own supporters.

It is a fact that many people in Malta regard politics as an extension of the marketplace. You “sell” your vote in exchange for something else.

Indeed, I know of more than one case where a government minister who was immensely competent and did not treat people according to their political opinions, paid the price at a general election through losing many votes, in a few cases even failing to get elected. Even more annoying is the reaction of some people: “Serves him right! – He failed to take care of our supporters and even helped our opponents.” (“Ħaqqu li ġralu! – Ma ħax ħsieb lin-nies tagħna u anke qeda’ lil tan-naħa l-oħra.”).

Again, the responsibility for changing this undesirable situation falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of leaders and administration members of political parties. They are the ones who have to educate their members and other supporters to understand that a government is there to serve all citizens, those who support the political party in power and those who do not.

This was the rallying call of the Labour Party in 2013: “Malta Tagħna Lkoll” (“Malta Belongs To All Of Us”). It was a rallying call that appealed so much to idealistic youths who wanted a cleaner type of politics, the end of political tribalism. No wonder that thousands of them flocked to the Labour colours! – Political clientelism is the opposite of all this. Political parties have to educate their supporters to understand once and for all that political patronage should become a thing of the past if we are to move forward as a nation. People should receive the services and benefits they are entitled to and not be unfairly advantaged over others simply because they seek and obtain the patronage of people in power.

Is it at all possible? – If we simply give up, we shall never know and we shall never progress in this important aspect of national politics.

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