No toying with democracy

In a democracy, the cancellation of an election at any level can only set alarm bells ringing.

Cartoon by Nadine Noko
Cartoon by Nadine Noko

Speaking in parliament on Thursday, opposition leader Simon Busuttil likened the present government’s behaviour to that of “an African dictatorship”. The comparison may well be an exaggeration – Busuttil was rapporteur on migration for the European Parliament, and should therefore know how serious the human rights situation is in many African states – but if you close an eye at the Opposition leader’s hyperbole and political grandstanding, on one issue he does have a valid point.

In recent weeks there have been, in fact, clear attempts to derail the democratic process. The government has been conspicuously less than transparent when giving a public account of its contractual agreements with private entities. It has appointed wives and family members of its own Cabinet members to sensitive public posts, and supplied misleading information to justify its actions.

These are all undeniably blots on the Labour Party’s democratic credentials… although it is odd that complaints should come from the leader of a party which behaved almost exactly the same way when in office up until March, 2013. However, if Busuttil is fully correct in his allegations – and this newspaper is reliably informed that he is – then there is also a plan afoot to ‘postpone’ next year’s local council elections until 2019. In fact a legal notice to this effect has already been drawn up, though it has not yet been tabled in parliament.

As local elections would be due in 2019 anyway, this means that the intention is effectively to cancel these elections altogether. And in a democracy, the cancellation of an election at any level can only set alarm bells ringing.

Until the legal notice is made public, it is not possible to state what official reason will be given for this extraordinary, unprecedented and blatantly anti-democratic move. But we hazard a guess at the ‘unofficial’ reason: to avoid a situation in which the abrogative referendum on spring hunting will coincide with the local elections.

This interpretation coincides neatly with a recent call by the hunters’ federation (FKNK) for a ‘stand-alone’ referendum. The FKNK’s strategy could not be clearer: it is reasonable to assume that the turn-out for the referendum would be considerably higher if one third of the country also had local elections on the same day. By urging the government to avoid holding both ballots concurrently, the hunters are trying to reduce voter turn-out as much as possible to ensure that the participation level is below 50%, thus automatically invalidating the exercise.

From the outset, the FKNK’s entire approach to the referendum has been clearly anti-democratic. The whole point of a referendum (and, by extension, of direct democracy) is for populations to take their own decisions on specific issues.

In order to ensure that the people do not take their own decision on the hunting issue, the FKNK have variously attempted to sow misinformation regarding such aspects of democracy as ‘minority rights’ – even placing their own hobby on a par with the rights of social minorities such as the gay community to equality – and are now actively seeking to sabotage the referendum to ensure that the people’s will is not factored into the equation at all.

But the hunters’ lobby is not a democratically elected political party, and theoretically it is free to propose as many anti-democratic measures as it pleases. The problem arises when governments – which, unlike NGOs, do have legal obligations to safeguard the democratic process – accede to such strategies.

Regardless of what agreements may have existed between the Labour Party and the hunters’ federation before the election, the government is not legally entitled to tamper with the fundamental rules of the democratic game just to appease a lobby to which it is indebted. And it is certainly not entitled to strip one third of the electorate of the fundamental human right to participate in the democratic process, to achieve an objective which is in itself anti-democratic.

Whether this worrying situation can realistically be compared with an African dictatorship is, of course, another question. What is certain is that such behaviour can by no stretch of the imagination be compared to the workings of a healthy and fully-functional democracy.

There are also legal implications to be considered. If the Muscat administration thinks that depriving people of their voting rights is acceptable in a modern democracy, it stands to be very emphatically corrected. An estimated 100,000 are due to vote in their local elections next year. If the elections are cancelled, and these people denied their right to vote (a fundamental right according to the Universal Charter), every single one can conceivably open a Constitutional case against the government for violation of human rights.

As things stand, the government has already bent far enough backwards to accommodate the hunters’ lobby. It has engineered the re-opening of finch trapping in defiance of the European Commission. It has presented the hunters’ demands as Malta’s own position in the European Court of Justice. Are we now expected to stand back and allow the same government to dismantle the very rules of democracy, in order to unfairly appease the same lobby?

In any self-respecting democracy, the answer can be only one. Of course not.

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