You can vote, but you can’t contest...

I may be reaching that age when I start looking at ‘16-year-olds’ and actually assume they’re much closer to 10 or 12. It might be an unfair impression, but I now include that age-group in the broader category of ‘children’

Anyone remember that classic Al Pacino scene from ‘The Devil’s Advocate’? About the ’rules’ set for mankind by a ‘prankster God’ for his own ‘cosmic amusement’?

‘Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow...’

Well, what brought it to mind this week was a certain Bill currently being debated in parliament: the one about lowering the voting age to 16. For a while now, I’ve been sitting back quietly, wondering how long it’s going to take people (not least, the soon-to-be enfranchised 16-18 age-bracket, who are the real victims of this prank) to finally identify the catch. But unlike Al Pacino’s Lucifer, I don’t actually have all eternity to wait. And I’m starting to get impatient.

So I’ll just add another line to the above rant: ‘Vote... but don’t contest’. Yep, my fine 16-year-old friends, that is the extent of the con inherent in that Bill. You’re only getting one part of the package of civic rights that traditionally come with the concept of ‘parliamentary representation’. And it just happens to be the part that works out to the benefit of the existing political class, and to your own detriment.

It’s the part where you get to show your loyal, unwavering support for your glorious (older) political leaders.... and not the part where you might actually get to threaten or challenge that political establishment in any way, by offering a real alternative at the polls.

In a nutshell, you are being told to your faces that government considers you ‘mature enough’ to vote for older, more... um... ‘mature’ candidates... but not to enter your own candidacy in any election, and thereby offer any form of ‘competition’ to the privileged 18+ bracket.

In a way (but only a very small way), I’m almost glad my own ‘sweet 16’ days elapsed almost exactly 30 years ago. If I was still in that age bracket myself, I would feel insulted and exploited. With an emphasis on the latter, mind you. Insults don’t bother me all that much, when it comes to it (though it may have been a different story in my teens). But exploitation? That’s a serious matter. And this is a classic case of it.

OK, let me try and illustrate by means of a small analogy. This is not the first time Malta has debated changes to its electoral law, to widen the electoral pool and include large swathes of previously ineligible voters. In 1945, the Labour government led by Paul Boffa oversaw the introduction of the vote for women... a much more numerous category than 16-18 year olds, accounting for roughly half the population.

Can you imagine how it would it have gone down, even at the time (let alone now), had Boffa’s government merely granted women the right to vote for all the male candidates on the ballot sheet... but not the right to contest elections themselves, on an equal footing with men? Sadly, it’s too late to ask former president Agatha Barbara how she’d have reacted... but I’d love to hear her opinion in the matter. She was one of the women who contested the first election in which women could vote. And she got elected by a landslide.

And please note, this was 1945. How ‘egalitarian’, as a society, could Malta possibly have been back then? We still suffer from evident misogyny today, 80 years later. But even in postwar Malta – i.e., long before (as Frank Zappa later put it) ‘women’s liberation came creepin’ all across the nation’ – we seem to have at least understood the very basic principle of proportional representation in a liberal democracy. We instinctively knew, way back in our political prehistory, that ‘the right to vote’ and ‘the right to contest’ are not merely bedfellows that share a passing family resemblance: they are one and the same right. Or to be more precise, they represent different sides to the same coin: both arise directly out of the principle of parliamentary representation, which is the cornerstone of our particular brand of democracy.

If you have the right to be represented in Parliament... how on earth can you not also have the right to represent others in the same arena? OK, let me try another analogy: Sandro Chetcuti’s analogy this time, when he (very accurately) compared the two parties to ‘giant supermarkets’ catering only for the construction/development lobby.

As far as I know, Malta operates on a ‘freedom of enterprise’ model: within all the usual legal/regulatory parameters (licensing, tax-paying, etc) anyone in this country is free to start up a business or open up a shop. Not all of us do it, naturally. Some of us consider it unnecessary, because the items or products we need are already available at someone else’s shop. Why go through all the hassle of importing/producing that product yourself (unless, of course, you’re attracted to the business potential, but let’s not take the analogy too far)? Most consumers wouldn’t bother. They’d content themselves with shopping around for what’s already available.

It’s the same with political parties. Some of us might have ambitions to form our own party, or contest on behalf of the existing ones... but most of us don’t bother. Most of us are ‘content’ (to varying degrees) to simply vote for what’s already on offer.

Well, what we are now looking at is a scenario whereby one socio-demographic grouping – which numbers around 8,000 people – are being told that they are free to ‘buy’... but not to ‘sell’. Others are eligible to set up their own ‘businesses’ and peddle their ‘wares’ in public... but this new caste of untouchables must perforce be satisfied with the array of items already on the supermarket shelves.

If they’re not – if they’d like a choice of different wares, and are willing to go through the hassle of producing those wares and selling them themselves – well, tough. That’s a privilege reserved for the older kids on the block. These newly ‘enfranchised’ kiddies are precluded from competing with existing ‘businesses’. To ditch the analogy and return to the electoral scenario: these new voters will not be able to form new parties of their own, nor run on any existing party ticket (thereby, who knows? Effecting changes from within the party, instead of without). Heck, they can’t even do a Spiridione Sant, and contest as independents.

They can only buy the products offered to them by the very people who are now changing the rules to allow them to shop from their own supermarkets. There’s a word for that in business circles, you know. It’s called a ‘monopoly’. And who benefits the most from a monopoly? The consumer, or the greedy cartel which reaps all the profits in the absence of any competition?

The situation would be bizarre enough, even if all that were the full extent of it. But there is another, more serious consideration.

To be perfectly frank, I myself am in two minds when it comes to widening the electorate to include 16-year-olds (with or without the right to contest). It has nothing to do with ‘doubts about their maturity’, or anything like that... for the simple reason that I have much bigger doubts about the maturity of all those existing MPs... and not one of them is younger than 28.

No, it’s more because I may be reaching that age when I start looking at ‘16-year-olds’ and actually assume they’re much closer to 10 or 12. It might be an unfair impression, but I now include that age-group in the broader category of ‘children’ (just as they, no doubt, take one look and consign me to the broad category of ‘old fogey’). And, like the old fogey I am, I have serious misgivings about exposing ‘children’ to such a dark, twisted and utterly unscrupulous world. I think it might be wiser – if not kinder – to spare them that exposure for those two more years. If nothing else, so they can enjoy their teens while they still can, and like the rest of us can’t.

But I also concede that the 16-year-old perspective may indeed be a much-needed boon to contemporary politics. I mean, let’s be honest. We adults have made a total mess of things. As the rest of the news this week has once again reconfirmed, all we’ve really managed to do is cement and perpetuate Sandro Chetcuti’s famous analogy as a state of fact. We’ve created a system of blatant political nepotism and capitalism, that has consistently been beyond our collective efforts to reform in any way (largely because there have, in fact, never been any ‘collective efforts’ at all).

Would 16-year-olds change that? To be perfectly honest, I haven’t a clue. But – for all my previous misgivings – I’d say it’s certainly worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen, anyway? Parliament would degenerate into an embarrassing circus of schoolyard name-calling and immature antics? Been there and done that long, long ago... with no teenage input of any kind.

Ah, but that’s precisely what irks and irritates me about this new law. It is designed to allow teenage participation in the electoral process, yes... but also to prevent the new reality from in any way upsetting the two parties’ precious apple-cart. You can take part in the show, but you can’t influence proceedings too directly. You can approve or reject our policies, but you can’t come up with any of your own. And above all, you – all 8,000 of you – can give the existing political class a whole new voter segment to be specifically targeted by means of more electoral promises, more niche-specific billboard campaigns, more gimmicks, more hampers, more job offers, more free tablets and Ipads... in a word, more ‘pjaciri’.

How is that going to ‘change the system’, exactly? What effect could it possibly have... if not to cement that very same clientelistic atavism even further, by extending it to a whole new generation of voters?

And then you get little devils like Al Pacino calling God a ‘prankster’. God...

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