A new low in ‘power of incumbency’

It is also inexplicable why a party enjoying such a strong lead over the opposition, should resort to such cheap tactics in the first place

When former Prime Minister Alfred Sant famously complained about the ‘power of incumbency’, everyone knew exactly what he meant.

Malta’s political structures have always been geared to maximise the Prime Minister’s control over the electoral process: among other things, by setting the choice of date as the Prime Minister’s sole prerogative; and above all, by blurring the distinction between ‘Party’ and ‘State’, so that political parties have full access to the powers of government, even during election campaigns.

To be fair, all Maltese governments have been known to abuse this power. But to distribute tax refund cheques, right in the middle of an electoral campaign – accompanied by covering letters signed by the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister - surely represents a new low.

In his covering letter, Prime Minister Abela boasts about safeguarding “the lives and livelihoods of Maltese and Gozitan families”; about having “stepped in to ensure electricity bills and fuel prices remain stable”; and about “increasing employment by 80,000 in seven years”.

While these statements are all legitimate, when used in party propaganda, they assume another significance when accompanying a cheque from the public exchequer: which is being distributed via government mail, a few days before a general election.

Moreover, by choosing last Sunday’s Labour Party rally to announce the scheme, Robert Abela deliberately made as much political capital as he possibly could, from what is essentially the disbursement of public funds.

One may well argue that stipends and pensions are still distributed during a campaign; but in this case, the government itself is making a political statement – through partisan channels - out of the distribution of government money.

Nor does it help than Abela added a dose of personal-political partisanship to proceedings. “These cheques might be the last you receive if you trust Bernard Grech and the Nationalist Party,” he told the cheering crowd.

In so doing, he may as well have admitted that his government is using public funds, to almost literally ‘buy’ votes: which would be unconscionable, even if his claim were true.

But – deceptively, on Abela’s part – it isn’t true. The PN’s manifesto itself also includes a commitment for a tax refund mechanism; and while this may even be beside the point: what is also at stake here, is political decency.

Using public monies to score political points, amounts to a level of political indecency is more typical of a Banana Republic, than a modern democracy.  It is a tactic which borders on institutional clientelism: sending out the wrong message that general elections are some sort of ‘fun-fair’; and politicians some sort of ‘Father Christmas’, complete with a sackful of ‘goodies’.

But in this case, the PM is not just promising those goodies; but also distributing them during the campaign itself. It is almost literally a case where, instead of sending a leaflet explaining the party’s manifesto, the party in government is simply showering people with cheques.

This also raises certain issues of propriety. As spelled out in guidelines issued by the Venice Commission, and the OSCE in 2020, “[state funded] mailings including party propaganda prior to elections can be considered a misuse of this free resource”.

The biggest problem, however, is that the only possible outcome of all this, is a rat-race to the bottom. This practice only has a dumbing-down effect on the electoral campaign in general: as evidenced on social media by people posting images of the cheques they received, to express ‘gratitude’ to the party in government.

Instead of debating which party has the best fiscal policy, people are literally being asked to base their vote on how much of their own money the government will ‘pay’ them for it.

To call that ‘irresponsible’, would be an understatement: also because this will dramatically (and unrealistically) raise the expectation bar before any future election, too. Instead of listening to ‘promises’, people will start expecting to actually receive all those benefits -  before the election, instead of afterwards.

Surely, it would have been far more elegant had Abela shown basic statesmanship by postponing the distribution of cheques until after the election.  That way, he could have still scored political points by referring to this fiscal mechanism in his speeches: without crudely using tax payers’ money to boost his own campaign.    

It is also inexplicable why a party enjoying such a strong lead over the opposition, should resort to such cheap tactics in the first place.  Boosted by such an advantage in the polls, Abela had a perfect opportunity to win this election without misusing the power of incumbency.

Either way, this case clearly underscores the need for reforms to limit the power of incumbency. In this sense, we welcome the Nationalist Party’s proposal to preclude government from awarding tenders, issuing permits, publishing legal notices and dishing promotions during the electoral campaign.   

We also agree with fixed-term parliaments, to further limit the government’s discretion in choosing the best favourable moment for an election. Because if this campaign has taught us anything, so far, it is that the power of incumbency must be brought to an end; before the price we end up paying for it, is democracy itself.