Time for electoral reform?

The current situation reflects a weakened government and a lack of a strong alternative.

Last Saturday’s European and local council elections are still vivid in our minds.  We are talking about them everywhere – at home, at work, and on the street. While every election sparks discussion, this one is different: the unexpected outcome means it will likely dominate national discussions for weeks to come.

The early indications of the outcome were met with a surprising range of interpretations, highlighting different perspectives. As Prime Minister Robert Abela said, this result sent many messages to the governing Labour Party. I’d say it goes even a step further, as the result has sent shockwaves to the whole political class.

To truly grasp these messages properly, we need a qualitative analysis of the various justifications – local, national, and European – behind our parties’ actions or inaction. While the analytical dissection of what led to this result will take some time to conclude, the statistical analysis of the result can commence right away. From this numerical analysis alone, there are already many messages that we can start to interpret.

Turnout

Since two elections took place on the same day, one needs to analyse voter turnout separately for each, as they likely have different meanings. At first glance one can get the impression that Saturday’s turnouts were low or alarming. If we take the election for the European Parliament and compare it with the previous similar elections, apart from the first one in 2004 the turnouts have always hovered around 75%. In reality, the turnout of last Saturday’s election was marginally higher than the turnout of five years ago.

 When one analyses the turnout of the local council elections, then, one finds that this year’s turnout (59.47%) is roughly 3% less than that of five years ago. It is worth observing that, when one compares with the base year of 2009, one finds a reduction of 20%, with a consistent reduction practically in every election. This is a fact that in itself is an important point of reflection. Why are people consistently participating less in the local council elections? Is it that the electorate is not happy with the performance of the elected councillors? Or is it a matter that the electorate believes that local councils, at least in their present form, are becoming less relevant and important?

Photo: Times of Malta

Considering that we are presented with new candidates in every election but still many sitting councillors are re-elected, I genuinely believe that the ever-decreasing turnouts in the these elections are not a sign of distrust in the candidates themselves. Rather, they are a sign that the time has come to re-evaluate local governance. We can explore how local councils function and identify ways to make them more responsive to residents’ needs. Importantly, these discussions should be focused on finding the best solutions, without being politicised.

The PL and PN share of votes

We often hear about the duopoly that the two main parties have on our country’s electoral system. It is therefore important to analyse the performance of the two big parties in this round of elections.

Essentially, the news that made the most noise in the European election was that the Labour Party lost approximately 23,000 votes, which means a reduction of 10% compared to the 2019 EP election. When one compares the 117,805 votes that the Labour Party got with the 370,184 registered voters, one can say that the party has the trust of 31% of the electorate. When the same calculation is applied, one finds that the Nationalist Party enjoys the trust of 29% of the entire electorate. If we compare with 2019, the Labour Party had the support of 38% of the electorate while the PN had the support of 27%. This means that, while Labour lost around 7% of electoral support, the PN gained only two percentage points.

While the Labour Party must understand why its popular support has been drastically eroded compared to the 2019 election, the PN must admit that it is not out of the woods yet and that, after 11 years in Opposition, the people still do not consider it an alternative government. I definitely do not interpret this result as a sign of a stronger opposition. Rather, the current situation reflects a weakened government and a lack of a strong alternative.

Smaller parties and independent candidates

In order to understand whether this duopoly is being challenged or not, we must analyse the performance of the small parties and the independent candidates. In fact, the first indications immediately showed that confidence in small parties and independent candidates has increased. The numbers also confirm this, because the vote share of these candidates amounts to 11% of registered voters. Compared to 2019, this meant a 5% increase in popular support. Therefore, from the  7% decrease in the popularity of the Labour Party, it was the smaller parties and the independents that have gained the most. This is a phenomenon that must be analysed in detail, especially because it is a phenomenon that has so far never materialised in any recent general election. This could mean that the electorate uses these so-called mid-term elections to experiment or convey a message to the larger parties.

Time for reform?

At the same time, we must remember that, in the 2022 general election, whilst the popularity of the small parties remained collectively below 5%, the number of voters who abstained was relatively high in comparison with previous general elections. So could these two factors combined mean that the people wish to have the representation of another party in the Maltese Parliament but fear that this could lead to political instability, which typically leads to economic instability?

Is it time to discuss in earnest whether our electoral system is still relevant to the way our country has developed politically in recent years? After all, in the Malta Flimkien election manifesto of the 2022 general election, the Labour Party promised a discussion that would lead to decisions on electoral reform.  Is it time to look at how different opinions can feel more represented without giving any undesired shocks to the stability of our country? We must keep in mind that the 1986 constitutional amendment that guarantees parliamentary majority to the party obtaining a majority of votes can only be applied when only two parties are elected to Parliament. Hence, if the electorate decides to elect another party – which, judging by results of late, should not come as a surprise – we may have a constitutional crisis on our hands.

Brian Scicluna is Vice Chair of IDEAT, the Labour Party’s political think thank.

Photo: Jonathan Borg

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Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
1 month ago

Interesting take on the electoral outcome. I just cannot see the two big parties making it easier for their duopoly to be eroded. As the author says, one cannot exclude some independent/s being elected even under the current system. But a proper reform of the system is a job for a constitutional convention in which non-political stakeholders have significant representation. The duopoly may be at each other’s throat. But on this one they are one: no to any convention that redimensions them.