The way to hell

Scrap ‘our’ electoral system. It is the only way this country can get out of the clientelism trap.

Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi had appointed Simon Busuttil (centre) himself to be the PN's main interlocutor with those who felt they had grievances, whether justified or not
Former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi had appointed Simon Busuttil (centre) himself to be the PN's main interlocutor with those who felt they had grievances, whether justified or not

I have no doubt of Simon Busuttil’s good intentions when he says that as Prime Minister he would eradicate clientelism, protect citizens’ rights and introduce European standards of quality to replace the mediocrity and corruption in the country.     

His solution intended to eradicate clientelism: setting up a ministry that would ensure individuals would not need to go to different ministries when they feel their rights have been breached. This is an impossible pipe dream that proves the wisdom of the proverb that says that the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

A Labour-leaning political observer pooh-poohed the idea insisting that clientelism has been the main characteristic of political campaigning for the last 60-70 years and this culture is here to stay. This is correct, of course, with the PN being guilty of clientelism as much as the PL is – although it has never been as facetious as Labour.

Suffice to say that the main activity in the PN headquarters in the run-up to the last election was a vain attempt to satisfy the demands of those who felt the party in government owed them some handout, a ‘pjaċir’ that was the price of their vote.

Indeed Prime Minister Gonzi had appointed Simon Busuttil himself to be the PN’s main interlocutor with those who felt they had grieviances, whether justified or not. This does not mean that those who ‘explain’ the PN’s defeat to the fact that it did not deliver on the ‘pjaċir’ front are correct. But that is another issue.

Way back in 1987, when the PN was elected after 16 years of Mintoffian rule the PN set up the Commission Against Injustices so that those who felt aggrieved as a result of some injustice meted out by the Labour administrations could present their case and ask for some form of compensation or rectification of the injustice.

As for the future, the PN administration led by Eddie Fenech Adami set up the Office of the Ombudsman that had been an MLP promise that was never delivered. The Commission Against Injustices and the Ombudsman were quite removed from the political hands of some minister and worked well up to a certain extent only: all those who felt they were the victims of some injustice felt they were right, whatever the Commission (or the Ombudsman) said. The Commission was then widened by the Alfred Sant government to consider the injustices allegedly committed by the 1987-1992 PN administrations. And the shenanigans went on and on.

Imagine the poor minister who is given the responsibility to ensure that citizens’ rights have not been breached. Will he discriminate between citizens coming from the electoral district he or she contests and others who vote for somebody else? Will he have any pressures from MPs whose voters insist that they want a ‘pjaċir’? Will he control his colleagues who are themselves accused of injustices? How will he ensure that jobs with the government and state entities are not given away to voters from the electoral district or districts in which the responsible minister – and Cabinet colleague – contests?

At the end of the day this way of doing things will only ensure that come the next election, the person who would have been given this impossible ministry will not be re-elected! 

The phenomenon of clientelism in Maltese politics is not something restricted to Malta. The financial troubles in Greece owe much to the clientelism in Greek politics with too many people employed by the state and political parties in power giving away hand-outs to their faithful, which translated into practically everybody as a result of the democratic alternation of power.

The only way we can start eliminating clientelism is to radically change the way people are elected Members of Parliament. With our present system, candidates of the same party compete against each other and apart from the fact that this has led to a lot of waste of money, energy and effort, it is the main cause of the clientelism phenomenon. It has given voters the power of blackmail and the political class the bad name that it has – besides being the real reason behind the over-manning in the public sector.

I have always been of the opinion that the whole system stinks and that despite the fact that many argue that the Maltese voter is used to this system, in actual fact the majority of Maltese voters are not aware of the mathematical implications of the numbers they indicate in front of the names of the different candidates on the ballot paper.

Tell any voter that every citizen has only one vote that can only be given to one candidate and the voter will stare back in disbelief. Tell the voter that this only vote goes to the person indicated as the first preference (with a number 1) and that the other numbers are just an ‘insurance’ in case the preferred candidate does not utilise the vote… and the voter will think that you are hallucinating.

Ask any voter coming out of a polling booth to recall the names of the candidates that were given a preference after number 3 and the voter will stare at you in the face – which explains why casual elections are ‘pot luck’ lotteries that leave unexpected ‘casualties’ and ‘triumphs’ in their wake.

It is not just the ordinary man in the street that does not understand how the system really works. I have met MPs from both sides of the House whose understanding of the system is no better. 

So I say: scrap ‘our’ electoral system. It is the only way this country can get out of the clientelism trap. We do not have to re-invent the wheel. We should first take a thorough look at five or six different electoral systems that already exist elsewhere and have passed the test of time.

The political parties have been reluctant to opt for a system that implies a list of candidates in a preferential order drawn up by the parties themselves. They should boldly shake themselves out of this mentality and then agree upon a system that avoids so much unnecessary hassle and is the main cause of clientelism.

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