Wilders thrown in the wilderness

Having small parties in Parliament with the big needing a coalition to govern can be the right antidote for the political mess Malta finds itself in

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 33 seats, and (right) Geert Wilders, 20
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 33 seats, and (right) Geert Wilders, 20

Last Wednesday evening, when the votes of the election in the Netherlands were counted, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte claimed a dominating parliamentary election victory over anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders, who failed the year’s first litmus test for populism in Europe and has been sent back to the opposition wilderness by the Dutch voters.

Provisional results with over half the votes counted indicated that Rutte’s party won 33 seats in the 150-member legislature, 13 more than Wilders’s party, that took second place with 20 seats, while the surging CDA Christian Democrats claimed 19.

Following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as US President, there was a fear across Europe that populist parties would be taking over many EU member states. Rutte, who is now poised for a third term as prime minister, was reported commenting that the Netherlands had said no to the wrong kind of populism.

Wilders, who campaigned on radical pledges to close borders to migrants from Muslim nations, close mosques, ban the Quran and take the Netherlands out of the EU, had insisted that whatever the result of the election, the kind of populist politics he and others in Europe represent are not going away. “Those are not the 30 seats we hoped for,” Wilders told reporters early Thursday, adding that he would “rather have been the biggest party.”

Mainstream politicians in Europe were relieved that the spread of extreme right national populism in Europe had been checked.

Many attributed the rise of these parties to the media that hyped their popularity in the wake of the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election in the US. Other commentators have intimated that Trump’s lacklustre performance since he became US President has dampened enthusiasm for the so-called New Populism in Europe.

This year is not only the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht treaty but also the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome that set up the common European market that eventually led to the European Union of 28 member states.

The Treaty of Rome was intended to foster economic interdependency between the six founding member states so that war between them – notably between Germany and France – would not be possible. Today the European Union is credited with 60 years of peace and prosperity in Europe.

Over the years, however, the EU became the butt of many. Politicians in the member states short-sightedly rebutted criticism of their lack of achievement by using the EU as a scapegoat in order not to lose popularity at home. Not that the EU regulators in Brussels are not to blame as well. However, many forget that decisions taken by ‘Brussels’ are actually decisions taken by the member states themselves. 

Add to this background the current migration crisis that was mishandled by the EU, leading to a general feeling that the EU was more negative than positive and giving rise to the extreme populist parties that we now have in practically all the EU member states.

The Netherlands have always had more clout in the EU than its size suggests. This, of course, should inspire Malta to be the EU’s Netherlands of the Mediterranean. Their election result should also inspire the electorate of the other EU member states.

The Dutch elections take a long time to produce a government because Dutch governments are always coalition governments with no party ever achieving an overall majority in the Dutch Parliament. The reason for this is that the voter just picks up the party that he or she wants to support. There are no constituencies and no electoral boundaries – all the votes of the country go into one pot and the parties are allotted the number of members that reflect the ratio of votes obtained. 

As a result small parties stand a chance of electing MPs, and in the Netherlands, many do. The party lists are, of course, published before the elections but no one votes for individual candidates. 

Having small parties represented in Parliament with the big needing a coalition to govern can be the right antidote for the political mess in which Malta finds itself. Our ‘winner takes all’ system has often produced more problems than solutions and has led to a large section of the Maltese electorate considering seriously to abstain from voting because they have concluded that our system has rendered any vote for the samller parties useless and valueless.

In this, as in many other things, Malta should go Dutch.

Meanwhile in Australia

The issue of donations to Maltese political parties is still at the forefront of comments and opinions in the Maltese press and social media. 

Comments made in the wake of the Seabank allegations implied that some donations were possibly made to a PN local section committee. Do these qualify as donations to a political party and are they being excluded from the list of donations submitted to the Electoral Commission? Who knows!

Moreover, it is not clear whether limited liability companies owned by political parties are covered by the law and whether donations masquerading as bogus trade transactions breach the law governing donations to political parties, although they may well be in breach of other laws. 

Likewise there is a grey area regarding donations given to individual candidates who habitually spend much more than the limit indicated by law – often after finding ways how to circumvent the law by having ‘friends’ organising their personal campaign.

Meanwhile, in a recent much publicised speech, the leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, described corporate donations to political parties in Australia as “state-sanctioned bribery”, and called for reforms to rid democracy of their “corrupting influence”.

Calling for an end to “big money politics”, Di Natale said corporations weren’t philanthropic entities but rather donated because they “expect a return on their investment”.

Di Natale said that, regardless of who won the next election, “we are going to see the big donors knocking on their doors… wanting to collect the rent”.

“I make no apologies for saying that big corporate political donations are a very corrosive influence on our democracy,” he said, citing lobbying by the hotels and gambling industry against poker machine reform after he entered parliament.

Sounds familiar? 

As the Italian saying goes: Tutto il mondo é paese....

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