What we learnt from this election

The Xarabank debate between Muscat and Busuttil will go down in history as one of the worst examples of political debates I have ever seen

All this counting by hand and manually checking every single vote is time-consuming and outdated
All this counting by hand and manually checking every single vote is time-consuming and outdated

It’s time for electronic counting of votes

The Electoral Commission is proposing that the next time Malta goes to the polls in 2019 for the MEP and local council elections, a system will be in place for electronic counting of votes, and I say Amen to that.

According to a report in the Times of Malta last year: “These (ballot) sheets would be scanned and dubious ballot papers filtered out. The scans would then be counted by computer software rather than by the current array of counters, ensuring results in a dramatically shorter time than now. At present, 12 hours are required for the official result of the first count and up to four days for the full result of all counts.”

All this counting by hand and manually checking every single vote is time-consuming and outdated. Not to mention waiting for over a week to find out who all the elected MPs are. Everything is electronic these days: we trust technology with our money to effect bank transfers and make major purchases, so why should we be so skittish about our votes? Plus look at all the money that would be saved from not having to employ all those people for the vote counting process. 

Of course, it will also mean the end of that unique Maltese election tradition known as ‘banging on the perspex’ every time a candidate is elected (or when a hapless counting agent makes a mistake). I know, I know, the very thought is unthinkable. I guess viewers can always recreate the atmosphere at home by buying a piece of plastic perspex which they can bang on in the privacy of their own living rooms.

In fact, watching the results of the UK election being announced for each district so very politely and so quietly, was like watching paint dry in comparison. 

The candidates all lined up obediently in a row wearing those fancy ribbons to indicate their respective parties, and everyone clapped demurely. It was just so British, so fascinating, and so diametrically the opposite to ours. Having said that, they have their own democratic quirks: where else in the world would you have a candidate come dressed up as Elmo, a Monster Raving Loony Party candidate (Howling ‘Laud’ Hope), and an Independent called ‘Lord Buckethead’ (literally a man with a bucket on his head) standing side by side with the prim and proper candidates? 

I realise that the idea of electronic counting is probably going to be met with a huge outcry – we are after all, probably the most suspicious country in the world when it comes to trusting election results and I am still reading wild theories claiming how the whole thing was rigged. But it needs to be done.

Let’s do something about the expat factor 

If our perspex is unique then so is flying in voters who live or study abroad on cheap flights to cast their vote. I really cannot think of any other country where this happens. The frenzy of trying to book a flight and the great lengths some people go to, to make it in time to collect their vote, just to make sure their party gets in, has always intrigued me. Maybe my brain works differently but if I had packed up my bags and left this island with no intention of returning any time soon, I really doubt I would care who was in government – but I realise that that’s just me. It is also worth pointing out that their Facebook bubble or the occasional weekend back on the ‘Rock’ to visit their folks cannot possibly provide Maltese ex-pats with a true picture of what physically living here day in, day out, actually means. 

But in any case, there are some people who are clearly still very passionate and emotionally invested, some would say disproportionately so, about who the Prime Minister of the island they left behind is. 

So, for these very dedicated voters, I think it is about time that Embassy voting (or some other method) is made available. It has been discussed long enough, let’s make it happen.

On the other side of the coin, I feel that those who really should have a say are the EU nationals who have lived and worked here for a while and are contributing to the economy. I cannot think of a single reason why they should be disenfranchised, after all, contrary to the Maltese who live abroad, this demographic actually lives here and experiences the good, the bad and the ugly on a first-hand basis every day, so political decisions affect them directly. After all, the Maltese who live in other EU countries are allowed to vote in their country of residence aren’t they?

Vetting of candidates is a must

This is a plea to both parties. Next time round, take a good, long look at whom you accept on your ballot sheet before just letting anyone hop on board the bandwagon in order to attract votes. I’m not going to single anyone out, but let’s just say that part of the reason that the PN lost a lot of its credibility with the man-in-the-street was because it was not being discerning enough. I also really wish the Labour Party would stop allowing just anyone who has deserted the PN to come along and contest on their ticket. I find it so very wrong to see someone who was previously such a loud political adversary to present himself newly repackaged and standing for election. Whom are we trying to kid? 

It also should be taken as a matter of course that your candidates are vetted properly and adhere to proper behaviour befitting someone running for office, rather than being loose cannons who will do anything to hog the limelight, perhaps providing a few moments of comic relief, but ultimately doing more harm than good. 

Let’s improve the level of debate

Both men were tense and clearly hostile towards each other, which was not a pretty sight
Both men were tense and clearly hostile towards each other, which was not a pretty sight

I think it is safe to say that the Xarabank debate between Muscat and Busuttil will go down in history as one of the worst examples of political debates I have ever seen. Both men were tense and clearly hostile towards each other, which was not a pretty sight. The discourse quickly deteriorated into childish name-calling. Seeing the Prime Minister calling the Opposition Leader ‘chicken’ was hardly the highlight of this campaign.

If that was bad, the utter shambles of a discussion on Brian Hansford’s Networks was even worse. Marlene Farrugia was unable to restrain herself and kept up a monologue throughout the whole programme even when her mic was turned down low. The rest of the panel had to resort to shouting to get a word in edgewise.

Are we surprised that ordinary people are unable to argue or discuss without it turning into a slanging match, when politicians give such a bad example? Let’s introduce debating societies in our schools from an early age so that one day we might have proper discussions, where people actually listen before replying and where they respect the other person’s point of view without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Who knows? It might even filter down to the exchanges on Facebook as well. 

Lessons to be learned about being an op-ed columnist

Writing a column in this polarized country has always been tricky, but during this election it became a veritable minefield. Inevitably, columnists were accused of having a loaded political agenda, of being biased towards one side or the other, or of being in the pockets of one of the two parties. We were told (almost lectured) about what we should write, when we should write it and how we should write on a regular basis. 

Of course, that comes with the territory and we have all learned how to take the flak, but it becomes pretty tiring to be told ‘why don’t you ever write about…?’ when in fact we would have, several times, if people ever bothered to read past a headline. There is also this insistence that if you criticise one side you must also criticise the other par conducio as the Italians say. But op-ed columnists are not the Broadcasting Authority – we are not here to ensure an equal amount of column inches for or against any of the parties to keep some sort of balance. Balance is achieved by the editors of the newspaper which provides space to columnists with different views. 

The operative word is ‘opinion’ and that is exactly what a columnist is there to provide, especially during an election, which is their view of what is going on, including their take on the political messages vs the public mood. We are not there to do propaganda or PR for one side or the other or to spin a story so that it fits in with the rhetoric of whatever party is clamouring for our attention. When we sit down to bash out our thoughts on a blank document, as the clock ticks away reminding us of our deadline, we need to take a step back from our personal political beliefs and do our very best to honour the truth. Whether we manage or not is what make or breaks our credibility and reputation. 

The media has taken a terrible bashing in this campaign and it is clear that many people no longer trust the Fourth Estate. However, I believe that the majority of those who provide political and social commentary do so with an analytical eye which tries to provide an insight into this complex multi-faceted island from their own vantage point, and their own life experiences. 

And of course you are free to disagree, get hot under the collar and rail against an opinion which rubs you the wrong way. And you are also free to skip that columnist’s article completely and move on to some other writer whose column fits in more with your own views. 

After all, that is what freedom of expression is all about.

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