For decades, Malta has been grappling with the pervasive issue of political clientelism, a culture characterised by the quid pro quo exchange between politicians and their constituents for electoral support. This entrenched practice is believed to have significantly undermined the integrity of the political process, eroded transparency, meritocracy, and accountability, and hindered the country’s democratic progress.
As calls for electoral law reform grow louder, Ideat – the Labour Party’s think thank – is suggesting the exploration of a potential strategy to combat clientelism by reducing the number of electoral districts. Clientelism finds more fertile ground in electoral systems where the size of each constituency is relatively small. Malta’s 316 km² territory is divided into no less than 13 electoral districts, each district represented by five elected Members of Parliament. This system allows politicians to nurture very close connections with their constituents, and this encourages them to offer tailored favours and benefits in exchange for votes, in so doing undermining the bedrock principles of equity and merit.
By reducing the number of electoral districts, the proposed reform aims to break the cycle of clientelism by making it more challenging for politicians to maintain very close personal connections with a vast number of constituents. With fewer districts, each MP would represent a larger population, making it more difficult to provide individualised favours and maintain patronage networks. This shift would encourage politicians to focus on broader policy issues and public service rather than relying on clientelistic practices to secure votes, while still allowing them enough time for personal contact with the people they represent.
Furthermore, reducing the number of electoral districts would incentivise the political parties themselves to focus on substantive issues and policy debates. As a result of such a change, the people would be in a better position to make informed electoral choices, steering the political discourse even more towards issues that really impact their lives.
While reducing the number of electoral districts holds promise in curbing clientelism, it is essential to strike a balance between electoral reform and electoral fairness. Measures would need to be taken to ensure that a drastic reduction in the number of districts does not disenfranchise voters and reduce the overall diversity of representation in Parliament. Careful consideration of the specific structure and allocation of seats would be crucial to ensure that the reform does not exacerbate existing inequalities or undermine the integrity of the electoral process.
Taking the clientelism bull by the horns requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses electoral reform, transparency measures, and civic education. By reducing the size of Parliament, promoting accountability and transparency, and fostering a culture where citizens are better informed, Malta can break the grip of clientelism and pave the way for a more equitable and accountable democratic system.