Democracy is not just about money

It is clear that the government-launched consultation process will amount to a stand-off between the three parties, and as a result will be inconclusive.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The Labour administration seems determined to push forward with a proposal to postpone next year’s local council elections until 2019, for reasons which to date remain unclear.

The government has now launched a four-week public consultation exercise, ostensibly to discuss the issue with other stakeholders: including two other political parties (PN and AD), both of which have already made clear that they oppose the initiative on principle. It is clear, therefore, that this consultation process will amount to a stand-off between the three parties, and as a result will be inconclusive.

This raises concerns that the exercise itself is intended merely to give a token impression of ‘consultation’ on a decision that has already been taken. In fact the amendments to the Local Councils Act have reportedly already been drafted.

Given that the issue was first revealed in parliament by Opposition leader Simon Busuttil – and not, as would be expected, by the government itself – one also gets the impression that the same consultation exercise, which will be carried out a mere five months before the scheduled election date, was hastily concocted to dispel the perception that the government was all along preparing to spring the decision onto the public at the eleventh hour.

None of this bodes particularly well for the democratic health of the nation, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the proposal itself devalues the concept of local government. If local elections can so easily be deferred, it suggests that the elections themselves are not viewed as important. One can naturally argue at length about whether the introduction of local councils – which was intended to devolve certain administrative powers away from central government – was a success or not. But it is clearly unhealthy for the central government to embark on initiatives which de facto reduce the same devolution process to the level of an almost unnecessary (and therefore expendable) exercise.

This becomes even more relevant in light of the fact that the government has not so far explained its reasons for wishing to postpone next year’s elections.

Critics claim that the undeclared intention is to avoid holding an abrogative referendum on spring hunting in conjunction with any other election, thus stunting participation in a vote on an issue which Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is electorally committed to defend. 

This coincides with the fact that the hunters’ federation, the FKNK – which favours spring hunting – has asked the government directly to ensure that the referendum is held on a stand-alone basis.

The plan to postpone the local elections may therefore be interpreted as a ploy to accede to the FKNK’s request indirectly. The government has so far denied this claim, yet has not offered any solid alternative explanation for its intentions… other than to hint that the decision is being considered for ‘economic’ reasons. Prime Minister Muscat has stated that the move will “save time and money”… but this is an unsatisfactory response for two very conspicuous reasons.

The first (and more practical) is that the government will have to fork out money on an election next year anyway, regardless of whether the local elections are postponed or not. According to the Constitution, now that the collected 40,000 signatures have been verified by the Electoral Commission the spring hunting referendum must take place in the coming year. The referendum will cost the exchequer an estimated €2 million; the local elections slightly less, as it will take place in one third of Malta’s localities. It makes eminent financial sense, therefore, for the government to hold these two plebiscites concurrently, as part of the costs involved would clearly overlap.

Yet the government argues that it would be more financially expedient to conduct the two elections separately, at a higher cost.

The second reason is more theoretical, but also more important. Questions of finance and expense cannot be cited as reasons to postpone an exercise in democracy. Elections always involve expenses – be they local, general or one-off referendums. If today’s government can successfully argue that one set of elections can be put off because the government doesn’t want to fork out the money, the same argument can conceivably be extended to other elections, too.

It would be naïve to assume that governments would only consider postponing elections for presumed financial reasons. Muscat himself hinted as much, when he pointed out that past Nationalist governments had likewise taken steps to ‘avoid’ local elections... citing the cases of Zejtun and Marsa in 2005, when the PN withdrew its candidates at the eleventh hour, thereby automatically cancelling the election.

The obvious response to this argument is that the PN was wrong to do so on that occasion – as this newspaper had pointed out editorially at the time – and that two wrongs do not make a right.

But the example also shows how today’s government, should Muscat get his way, would also be able to repeat the same process in future in order to avoid elections it fears it might lose.

The threat to democracy implicit in this line of reasoning is almost too obvious to be pointed out. If Joseph Muscat succeeds in postponing next March’s election for whatever reason, it would be a precedent that could return to haunt our country in future.

More in Editorial