More than a tad too cynical

Muscat had hinted at probable impending changes some time ago, just after the EP elections, saying that holding local elections frequently was a recurring expense that the country could save on and that voters were experiencing electoral fatigue

The right for a genuinely free vote and the genuine respect due to the voters’ choice are two of the basic requisites of democracy. Without them, power tends to remain permanently in the hands of a select few who cannot be replaced through the ballot box. The attitude to democracy of politicians and leaders the world over, indeed, can be gauged from the way they respect the people’s will as expressed in a free vote, more than from the way they wield power.

I would have thought that we in Malta have long agreed about the basics of democracy – even though we manage to disagree about everything else.

So, I was more than a little surprised at the way our Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, has not reacted at all to the criticism levelled at his reported decision to postpone all local council elections due by law in 2015 and 2017 - for four and two years respectively - to 2019 so that these elections will all coincide with the next round of the elections for the European Parliament (EP).

The Leader of the Opposition has alleged that the decision has already been taken, even though not yet officially announced, and there was no reaction from the Prime Minister. Media reports say that the drafts of the necessary changes in the law and of relevant legal notices have already been prepared. Meanwhile the government chooses to keep mum about whether it has, in fact, taken the decision and what this decision actually is. The official silence is as deafening as it is ominous.

Even so, Muscat had hinted at probable impending changes some time ago, just after the EP elections, saying that holding local elections frequently was a recurring expense that the country could save on and that voters were experiencing electoral fatigue. I reckoned he was just kite flying with the idea that all local elections are held together rather than having two separate groups with separate dates.

It seems that he had probably already taken the decision that involves even more than he hinted, even though he has not yet said as much. Worse still, however, is the postponement of these elections by four or two years without as much as some form of consultation with the opposition and the local councils themselves. Worse, because the Prime Minister has refrained from even trying to do so – probably realising that in this case his powers of persuasion will fail him…

The Prime Minister’s reported decision means that people who voted for their local councillors for a term of four years are going to find that the persons they elected are in for an extra four years - or an extra two years, as the case may be - without any real or valid electoral mandate.

In this case, the power of the local councils during those extra years would not be coming from the people but from a change in the law with which democratic principles would have been given the short shrift. That is why any reform in the current local council rotation should be undertaken only after a national consensus is reached, rather than on the Prime Minister’s whim – a perturbing situation, if there ever was one.

All over the world, regional or local elections held in an administration’s mid-term are used as a very clear indicator on whether the administration’s way of doing things is being looked upon positively or negatively by the electorate.

With the EP elections scheduled just one year after the general elections in Malta - for purely coincidental reasons - lumping all local elections together with the EP elections is not indicated and undermines the obvious advantage of having local elections in mid-term – a system that benefits all political parties, whether in government or in opposition.

Experience has shown that ignoring the messages given by the electorate in mid-term local elections is a dangerous game for the political parties who foolishly do so. So what on earth is Joseph Muscat’s ‘raison d’être’ behind his latest ploy?

It could well be that Muscat wants to avoid a further electoral test before the next general election as any PN advances in mid-term local elections would help to weaken Muscat’s aura of invincibility, while he wants to reinforce the current perception that it is impossible for the PN to close the gap with Labour.

Sections of the media have alleged that the real reason for this decision was to ensure that the referendum on spring bird hunting would be a ‘stand alone’ referendum as the bird hunting lobby has publicly demanded. This means that citizens would have to go and vote in the referendum only if they feel strongly about the hunting issue as they would not need to visit the voting booth on the same day for any other reason. The hunting lobby will then urge people to boycott the vote, in the hope that the turnout will be less than 50%, making the referendum result invalid.

The excuse of postponing the vote for the local council elections due next year in order to save money is, of course, ridiculous - since, in any case, the referendum on spring hunting will have to be held in the same year. Combining the two votes would mean that the extra money spent for the local election would be negligible.

Hence, in the case of the local council elections due in 2015 the ‘money saving’ excuse is an utter non-starter. In other words, the serious allegation that Muscat intends to cynically manipulate the dates of the local council elections in order to appease the bird hunting lobby cannot be easily dismissed.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister really believes that he can fool people in the way he seems to be intent on doing or whether the problem is that he cannot get out of his commitments with the hunters’ lobby,

I have long realised that Muscat is a pragmatic person who opts for results at any cost, even at the risk of principles, and that he excels in manipulating public opinion to get where he wants to go – something that the PN is finding hard to grasp and deal with.

But for Muscat to throw the basic principles of democracy to the dogs in order to give a helping hand to the hunting lobby while appearing to be respecting the democratic rules by holding the referendum is more than a tad too cynical for my liking.

Saying, after the event, that the issue was ‘mishandled’ and that criticism was legitimate, only to continue doing what he had decided to do in any case – as has happened with other issues – will only confirm the Prime Minister’s cynical attitude in the way he runs the country and will, unfortunately, also continue to confirm the impression that for him the end justifies the means.

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