The PL-PN duopoly is finally fraying. And in ways least expected | Godfrey Baldacchino

For a party in government for seven years, rattled of late by allegations and revelations of shady deals and corrupt practices, the PL’s stratospheric poll ratings are preposterous

The scenarios of a single-party democracy constitute uncharted territory for Malta
The scenarios of a single-party democracy constitute uncharted territory for Malta

Along with Ireland, British colonial administrators bestowed on Malta a ‘proportional representation’ (PR) voting system with a single transferable vote (STV). This was meant to dispel strong, single-party rule and instead oblige coalition (multi-party) governments. This has proved true in Ireland, including in this week’s election, where the party with most votes did so with less than 23% of electoral support.

But it has not been the case in Malta. Since 1966, the Malta Labour Party (MLP, now Partit Laburista, PL) and the Partit Nazzjonalista (PN) have been taking turns at running the country and with no need for coalition governments. Five such alternations have taken place so far since independence: 1971, 1987, 1996, 1998 and 2013.

Over these 54 years, observers have watched with baited breath as one party after another rose up and tried to challenge this duopoly. MLP/PL and PN party stalwarts looked nervously over their shoulders at the likely rise of parties that might seriously threaten and outflank them from the ideological right (Moviment Patrijotti Maltin), the left (Partit Komunista Malti) or even from the centre (Partit Demokratiku).

But the aspirational goals of ‘the third party’ that would break the PL-PN stranglehold have been dashed time and time again. Yes, Alternattiva Demokratika soldiers on, and one cannot help but acknowledge the role played by this party in helping craft the national policy agenda: from divorce and environmental protection to civil unions and animal rights.

But: it is nowhere close to being an alternative government.

The MaltaToday poll of January 2020 was no ‘black swan’ event. Rather, it corroborates and magnifies what has been happening since March 2013, with the PL consistently securing 55-60% voter support in a suite of electoral contests (local, national and European): a feat unheard of, and even deemed impossible, in PR-STV democracies. The one and only time in Maltese history that such a situation had prevailed was in the October 1947 election, where the MLP secured 60% of the vote and the PN a miserly 18%. Note that the PN vote here, its lowest ever recorded over 100 years, was in the wake of the Second World War and that party leadership’s embarrassing associations with Italy and fascism at that time.

Polls are what they are. Some respondents will not reply, or will answer strategically. The 655 respondents to the MaltaToday poll may be giving Prime Minister Abela, still in his honeymoon period, the benefit of the doubt on many issues. And there is a +/- 5% margin of error (as the poll acknowledges).

Yet, for a party in government for seven years, rattled of late by allegations and revelations of shady deals and corrupt practices, the PL’s stratospheric poll ratings are preposterous. The dismal state of the Opposition hints at the absence of an alternative government. Even poll respondents who acknowledge having voted PN in the last (2017) election have registered support for Abela, perhaps out of resignation and exasperation as much as wilful choice.

PM Joseph Muscat’s exit strategy has paid off handsomely: he did not breathe new life and energy into a (somewhat vindicated) PN. Instead, it seems that Muscat drew the poison out of the PL, taking it with him into the political sunset; while leaving the PL looking cleansed, fresh and well-placed for a third successive national election success, at an election to be called within two years and a bit (at most: some suggest sooner than that). Prime Minister Abela completed the sanitisation with his thorough overhaul of Cabinet.

Therefore, the signs suggest that Malta is heading towards a one-party democracy. A consistent, seven-year pattern is no statistical fluke. An election called now may grant the PL an unprecedented super-solid majority in parliament, possibly within the possibility of a two-thirds majority that would offer it the opportunity to amend the constitution without the need to reach out to the Opposition benches. Would the Maltese electorate balk at such a prospect?

The scenarios of a single-party democracy constitute uncharted territory for Malta.

The rule of law, the role of independent media, the role and clout of the Head of State, the ability to speak truth to power, cosy relationships between political and economic elites, and oversight by European institutions, trade unions and civil society, come up for discussion.

We may, once again, need to look at Singapore, not so much to examine how a poor small island state emerged from being abandoned as a British naval base that was ‘surplus to requirements’ into an economically vibrant Asian Tiger; but to appraise what a democracy looks like when a country has a single and dominant political party.

The days of the ‘PL-PN’ duopoly may be history.

Godfrey Baldacchino is Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta. The opinions expressed in this article are his personal views. 

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