Saturday, February 2, 2008

Elections!

Well, I've known since the summer that Malta would have to have elections. All the guesses were that it would be March and March it is. According to today's Malta Times, Prime Minister Gonzi will visit President Fenech to tell him he is dissolving parliament on Monday and calling elections for Mar 8 (there must be a minimum of 33 days between the dissolution of Parliament and the election day). Local Council elections will also be held on the 8th.

Unlike the US system where there is a fixed date for national elections (and endless campaigns in between), the rules here say how often a national election must be held, but leave it to the ruling party to select the exact timing, which can be well before the final "must have" date. This gives a special flavor to political calculations in political systems of this type. The ruling party wants to hit a time that will put it at best advantage and their opponents at the worst advantage. Polls apparently suggest the opposition Labour party will win the election, for the first time since 1996/98. I haven't seen the polls, but I'm erratic about getting one of the newspapers or remembering to read one on line.

Malta has a mostly two-party system despite a proportional representation system. It uses what is called the SINGLE TRANSFERABLE VOTE (STV) system for determining who gets a seat. Only Ireland uses this system for national elections. Australia uses it for Senate elections and a few municipalities in the US use the system. Here's what a website on the Malta electoral system says about STV:

"STV is part of the large family of voting systems known collectively as proportional representation. STV is quite different, however, from such proportional representation arrangement like the "party list" system that is the norm in much of Europe. Under STV the ballot gives voters a choice among individual candidates rather than political parties. It asks voters to rank-order their prefences for various candidates and, within limits, have each vote contribute to the election of one of the voter's choices.

The system is quite simple for the voter, who confronts a ballot with the names of a number of candidates and then simply numbers them in the order in which the voter prefers them. But the system involves considerable complexity in the subsequent counting -- and transfering -- of the various voter preferences. On this Web site are several descriptions, with varying degrees of detail, of how the STV process works. (See the section entitled The Rules of STV Elections in Malta )." You can find the site at: http://www.maltadata.com/

From what people tell me one reason it remains a 2-party system is because the system somehow produces a very high threshhold of votes for getting a seat. What I am unclear on--HELP ME MALTESE READERS--is how the STV produces the effect, as I've been told there is no formal threshhold of votes. I'm guessing it has to do with the dynamics of how many counts and recounts to move votes to the 2nd or third candidate. Elections are not my area, however, and STV is pretty exotic for me. In other places that use party list (you elect the first person from the party first and if you get a bigger percent they you work your way down the list) there are constitutional rules saying a candidate or party must get at least 5% of the vote. Without such a rule, one often gets the bad effect of dozens of increasingly more radical/reactionary splinter parties and a weakening of centrist parties. But there doesn't actually seem to be any formal rule of this nature here.

I've heard but not confirmed for myself that the two main parties are only separated by a few thousand votes, so the fortunes of any third parties do factor into the party calculations of the Labour and Nationalist Parties.

OK...now for politics. I pray I will not be out of line reporting what I've read and heard. I'm a guest of Malta, this is their country.

The ruling Nationalist Party has both good and bad news facing it. The good news is that there are jobs, they did mange to finish some projects, tourism is up, and the switch to the Euro seemed to go fine. Plus, whenever the Labour party has come in things have not gone so well (and my Labour friends explain to me that the party did do many good things, but X or Y things happened beyond their control). But, the bad news is that I've heard a lot of people say the ruling party simply needs to be changed to force a reconsideration of some policies. Moreover many in Malta say the economy has not gotten better for those earning lower wages. With the price of food high and the insane lack of connection between the supply and demand for houses/apartment (lots of empty places, but the prices keep going up and are going out of reach of the middle class), the less affluent Maltese worker has little left at the end of the paycheck. My hairdresser said the minimum wage needed to be increased and/or something had to be done about housing. Next on the list of little problems for the ruling party is that just in the last day or so the government said it would abide by a European Court of Justice ruling against spring bird hunting should it go against Malta (which looks likely). The hunters are outraged and say that wasn't part of the deal when Malta joined the EU. The hunters blame the current government. Labour, as near as I can tell, is keeping its mouth shut on the matter. Of course, both parties will have to abide by the EU rule and the vast majority of Maltese favor an end to spring hunting anyway. But the hunters will vote. Last but not least, the Nationalists got bad press for translating the slogan from the presidential campaign by Sarkozy of France into Maltese and using it for themselves.

My friends from both parties (and one from the green party) say to hold my hat. It will be crazy around here for the next month or so--and even more interesting if there is a change in government. I can hardly wait to see what happens. But today...I go to Valletta to see the floats for a Carnival of an entirely different nature!

2 comments:

Charles Sammut said...

Hello
I will try to explain what it takes to get a seat in Malta's parliament.

Malta is divided into 12 districts with Gozo making up the 13th. 5 seats are up for grabs in each district, total 65 seats.

To get elected a candidate has to get a quota of votes which is 1/6 of the votes cast in each district. Well it is actually 1/6 +1 I think. So unless a party has a candidate who can muster almost 17% of the votes in a single district it will not be represented in parliament.

This makes a mockery of the term 'proportional representation' because a party could get say 10% or even 15% of the total votes and still not get representation in parliament.

The two main parties, what we call the MLPN are not all that keen on making the system fairer and it will be nigh impossible for anyone to get elected from outside the MLPN.

Charles Sammut

Mary said...

Thanks! I had heard the 16/17% rule and didn't quite understand whether it was a formal threshhold (5% is a good one to prevent massive splintering of parties) or something else. This is clearer.

I've been told I should do my grocery shopping on Sat, because not much will be open on Sun and Mon. Either people will be celebrating or commiserating.