How to turn the gender balancing mechanism on its head

Few know that many who formed the Nationalist Party in 1926 had been members of the Anti-Reform Party, a party meant to resist legislative changes that were meant to modernise the country. Many others also do not realise that back in the 1940s the Nationalist Party had tried to postpone the granting of voting rights to women. They had told the colonial administration that it was not “advisable to impose on the large female masses an onus and responsibility which the majority, would not, perhaps be prepared to assume”.  

It is no coincidence therefore that the first female member of parliament, the first female Minister, the first female president, the first female speaker and the first female EU Commissioner were chosen by Labour. The conservative party’s approach towards women’s representation was again showcased by the way that they turned on its head the gender balancing mechanism.

When Labour introduced this mechanism, the idea was to ensure that both genders received a fairer degree of representation. So, after the electoral process is over, up to 12 members of the least represented gender can be elected to increase that gender’s representation. The idea is that these members of parliament would be over and above those who managed to get elected using the normal process.

Instead, the Nationalist Party opted to use the gender balancing mechanism to reduce the potential number of women that would get elected using the normal electoral process. This by asking Janice Chetcuti not to contest the casual election which would have seen her elected, and instead relying on the gender balancing mechanism. In so doing they reduced the number of women who would be elected on the Nationalist ticket.

The Nationalist Party opted to use the gender balancing mechanism to reduce the potential number of women elected through the normal process.

The Malta Women’s Lobby rightly called this decision to manipulate the system as a slap in the face of those who have fair representation at heart. What was meant as a mechanism to help give women a stronger chance to be represented ended up being used as exactly the opposite. Rightly so, the Malta Women’s Lobby praised those women who still participated fully in the casual election process.

In fact, a number of Nationalist female candidates who could have relied on the gender balancing mechanism still chose to run in the casual elections and managed to get elected. Amongst these women one finds Rebekah Cilia.

But while one could simply interpret Bernard Grech’s decision as spurred by typical conservative instincts to subvert the gender balancing mechanism, there is definitely something else driving it.

This decision has led to the two wings of the Nationalist blogosphere, Simon Mercieca and Manuel Delia to take diametrically opposite positions. Manuel Delia, who is usually all for Bernard Grech, came out against, while Simon Mercieca, who is usually all out against Bernard Grech, came out in favour.

On Tuesday we all understood why. The person who ended up losing her potential seat in Parliament thanks to Grech’s move was Emma Portelli Bonnici. Portelli Bonnici is a prominent liberal within the Nationalist ranks, and her presence on the candidate list irked greatly the conservative fringe of the Party. By contrast the Repubblika faction saw in Portelli Bonnici a new force that could reinvigorate its ageing ranks.

Janice Chetcuti’s “brave” decision in effect slammed Parliament’s door shut for Emma Portelli Bonnici. This is the conservative wing’s pound of flesh demand for not contesting Bernard Grech’s leadership. The cherry on the cake was that instead of Janice Chetcuti, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, another darling of the conservative wing got into Parliament.

All of this happens in the backdrop of Alex Borg’s warnings to Bernard Grech to acknowledge the new strength of the PN’s “new faces. But there is little new behind Alex Borg. This is the Giovanna Debono clan getting its ultimate revenge for Chris Said’s and the broader establishment’s part in her downfall.

It is becoming even more evident that for the Nationalist Party the 2022 general election made the internal turmoil situation even worse. By balancing the electoral strength of the liberal and conservative wings, the election has made the Party even less able to function. One can safely bet that the gender balancing mechanism will not be the last thing that will be turned on its head by the Nationalist Party in the near future as a result of its constant infighting.      

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