Mandatory voting, in Malta? But… WHY?!

I can more or less understand how politicians like Evarist Bartolo – who, let’s face it, depend exclusively on ‘voter-participation in elections’, for their own political advancement – would be disconcerted, by what can only be described as an unprecedented (by local standards) decline in voter turn-out

Evarist Bartolo
Evarist Bartolo

You’ve got to hand it to Evarist Bartolo, though. There aren’t that many politicians who can still somehow manage to surprise me, at a pinch… even after having closely observed them in action (in Bartolo’s case, I interviewed him at least three times) for the better part of the last 30 years.

And yet, there the former Education Minister was – on the TVM talk-show ‘Popolin’, last Monday – arguing that: “I know it’s controversial, but the time has come to discuss whether voting should be made… MANDATORY” [my emphasis].

Erm… sorry to repeat a question I only just asked in the headline, but: why is that, exactly? And, I don’t just mean: “Why should we even contemplate such a hare-brained proposal, in the first place?”; nor, ‘Why should ‘mandatory voting’ even be on the agenda at all: in a country which still boasts by far the highest voter turn-out, anywhere in Europe; or indeed, the entire democratic world?” [Note: Malta’s turn-out at the last election – 88% – was roughly equal to that of Australia in 2014: even if Australia has ‘mandatory voting’, and we don’t.]

No, I also meant: why NOW? Why does Evarist Bartolo include that tell-tale proviso, ‘the time has come’… as if to suggest that there has been some kind of development, in recent years, that makes it somehow imperative to actually force Maltese voters out to the polls, against their own will… at (the equivalent of) GUNPOINT, no less?!

Well, Bartolo’s own answer to that question was that:

a) There was a drop of around 60,000 voters, at the last election (which he himself attributes to the fact that “people are disillusioned with their party, but aren’t ready to vote for the other party”);

b) “Voting isn’t only a responsibility but a duty, particularly since we’re on a trend where more and more people don’t want to vote”; and

c) “More people not voting means the political parties will be more comfortable simply pleasing their fanatics…”

And it is this answer, more than the proposal itself (which, to be fair, has been raised by other people apart from Bartolo, over the years), that surprised me the most.

For on a certain level: I can more or less understand how politicians like Evarist Bartolo – who, let’s face it, depend exclusively on ‘voter-participation in elections’, for their own political advancement – would be disconcerted, by what can only be described as an unprecedented (by local standards) decline in voter turn-out.

After all, the reaction would be exactly the same in any comparable ‘non-political’ scenario, too. If a commercial establishment – let’s say, a supermarket – were to lose a sizeable chunk of its own client-base: not to any rival competitor, or anything… but simply because its own products were considered so utterly awful (and the same goes for all other supermarkets, too) that around 60,000 of Malta’s entire consumer-population decided to just ‘stop shopping at supermarkets’, altogether …

Well, yeah: it kind of figures, doesn’t it, that not just the owner of said supermarket – but the entire local retail sector, across the board – would be somewhat slightly ‘concerned’ (possibly, even to the extent of taking some truly drastic measures, to re-instill all that ‘lost customer-confidence’)?

Then again, however: not even the most unscrupulous, exploitative and rapacious commercial operator I can think of (and believe me: I can think of quite a few) would ever respond to those circumstances, by simply ‘demanding national legislation’ – as a matter of urgency, if you please – that would compel those 60,000 disgruntled customers to just ‘go back out shopping, like the dutiful consumers they’re supposed to be’ (or face fines, and possibly even prison-sentences, if they refuse to comply.)

Leaving aside that it would seriously (but SERIOUSLY) skew the entire ‘free-market’ foundations, upon which our entire economic model is supposed to be built: resulting in a situation where nothing resembling ‘free competition’ could possibly even exist, anymore (for the simple reason that ‘free competition’, in and of itself, also requires the existence of something called ‘free choice’…)

But never mind all that, because: the accompanying reasoning is already ‘skewed’ enough, as it is. In a nutshell, Bartolo seems to be arguing that: because “people are disillusioned with their party, but aren’t ready to vote for the other party”… it’s not the parties themselves, that (to continue the supermarket analogy) need to change their stock of ‘products’, in order to somehow entice those former ‘customers’ back to the fold…

Oh, no: it is the 60,000 disgruntled voters, who should be ‘made to see the error of their ways’… by being legally coerced into supporting the same two parties they had earlier chosen to reject: even though the parties themselves wouldn’t have changed at all, in any detail, since the last election.

In other words: those same 60,000 voters would be expected to participate in general elections… not out of any ‘responsibility, duty, or democratic principle’; and even less, on the basis of any meaningful change, that one or the other party might actually bring about in their own lives (which, after all, is the REAL reason why most people vote in elections, anyway).

No, those people would be expected to ‘go out and vote, like the dutiful citizens they’re all supposed to be’… because it is in the two parties’ own, self-serving interests for them to do so – even ‘under duress’, if necessary – and for no other reason, under the sun.

And, well, do I even need to continue? Sorry, but that is PRECISELY why so many Maltese voters chose not to actually vote in March 2022, in the first place. At the risk of generalising: it is in large degree because they do not actually recognise any discernible difference between the Nationalist and Labour parties, when it comes down to certain fundamentals areas of governance that directly affect their own lives. (And no: as it happens, they are clearly not enthused by any of the smaller parties, either).

Obviously, I can’t pinpoint too many specific factors, behind what amounts to a significant ‘loss of public trust in the entire system’ (if nothing else, because the reasons will vary from individual to individual)…

… but even a cursory glance at the issues that routinely dominate this newspaper’s surveys about ‘popular concerns’ – traffic management; the environment; inflation; immigration; rising crime-rates; over-development; the loss (or excessive commercialisation) of public open spaces; etc., etc. – should already be enough to point in a certain direction.

Simply put: a growing number of (mostly young) people are now gravitating towards the same general conclusion: i.e., that unless the two parties themselves make radical changes, to the sort of political ‘product’ they themselves are offering the electorate… there is no conceivable reason to even bother voting in Maltese elections, at all.

And surely, that should place the ‘onus of change’ directly onto the two political parties– which (in theory, anyway) now have to compete, for the growing contingent of former voters who are quite frankly unimpressed by what either of them has to offer.

Effectively, this also means that – far from ‘political parties becoming more comfortable simply pleasing their fanatics’ – a further drop in voter-participation is arguably the only thing that can even happen, in this country, to finally convince those two parties of the need to actually ‘transform themselves’, into something more ‘deserving of the electorate’s trust’.

What Evarist Bartolo (among others) seems to be suggesting, on the other hand, is the clean opposite of all that. Not only would ‘mandatory voting’ create no impetus whatsoever, for the two parties to even angle for any of those 60,000 lost voters, at all – and still less, to change any of their own policies, to accommodate them – but the only conceivable impact this legislation is ever likely to have, in practice, is that…

Well, let me put it this way. The percentage of ‘votes cast’ would almost certainly shoot right back up, from the 88% of 2022, to the (entirely unhealthy, if you ask me) ‘96/97%’ levels it used to be, way back in the 1980s.

But the same shortfall would be immediately counter-balanced, by an equal-and-opposite skyrocketing of the percentage of ‘invalidated votes’.

Because let’s face it, folks: if no fewer than 60,000 Maltese voters decided, at the last election, to send out a clear and unequivocal message to both parties – i.e. that ‘they want CHANGE: and they want it NOW!’ – and the parties’ actual response, is to virtually threaten those same voters with criminal sanctions, if they don’t immediately comply with their own demands for “political allegiance at all costs: no questions asked…”

Quite frankly, I shudder to even imagine the sort of obscenities that will be scrawled all over those ballot sheets, in the privacy of the voting-cubicle, come election day itself.

Even if the number of people who choose to invalidate their votes is likely to be a whole lot higher than just ‘60,000’ (given that I myself will certainly be among them. In fact, I’d consider it both a ‘responsibility’, as well a ‘civic duty’, to scrawl a few obscenities of my own, on that ballot sheet – ON PRINCIPLE, please note – if I am ever compelled to vote in any election, against my own will… and under threat of ‘criminal sanctions’, no less.)

Just saying, that’s all…