A new definition of ‘compromise’

Democratic exercises such as elections and referendums are not subject to the whims and fancies of the prime minister of the time.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

With just five months to go before the next round of local elections, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appears hell bent on a proposal to postpone these elections until 2017.

The latest announcement was that a public consultation exercise launched just last month has revealed a “convergence of ideas”, leading to fresh proposals that Muscat is confident will be accepted by the “majority of the people”.

A number of points however need to be clarified. As yet, we still have no clear idea of why this government is so keen to avoid local elections next March. The government has dismissed claims that it wants to avoid having these elections coincide with the abrogative referendum of spring hunting: arguing that his intention is to avoid unnecessary expenses related to elections.

This raises the first of several paradoxes surrounding Muscat’s proposition. Best practice to date suggests that it makes most sense to hold these elections concurrently – as in fact happens with general elections. The reasons for this are obvious. Elections cost money, and holding separate elections close to each other will double the costs involved.

One can immediately see a conspicuous flaw in the reasoning behind his declared motivation. The government will have to hold an election in that period anyway – the spring hunting referendum, which is mandated by the Constitution and cannot therefore be dismissed or postponed without triggering a major democratic crisis. There are expenses involved in this, too. So by postponing the local elections to a time when they will not be held concurrently with any other election, Muscat will actually double the overall cost in the long term.

Clearly, then, the expense argument does not pass the test under scrutiny. Muscat’s course of action will in fact defeat the very objective he claims to be pursuing. It will raise costs, not lower them. This leaves us with other, alternative hypotheses – none of which is very encouraging.

The likeliest remains an inbuilt tendency to seek to favour the hunting lobby wherever possible: a strategy that had helped Muscat accumulate his impressive electoral majority in March 2013. One way to achieve this would be to accede to a formal demand by the hunters’ representatives for the spring hunting referendum to be held on a standalone basis… a move that may affect the overall turnout, and subsequently the result.

Recent events may have made this even more compelling to Muscat for entirely political reasons. Having been forced to abruptly halt the autumn hunting season following widespread illegalities – at a time when his proposed Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, was to be grilled by the European Parliament on his environmental credentials – Muscat is likely to be seeking ways to minimise the haemorrhage of hunters’ votes. He has already lost the support of the ‘diehards’; but he still has an opportunity to shore up the moderate hunters’ vote.

A second, more practical and even less palatable reason is that he simply does not want his national majority dented by a possible poor showing at next March’s polls.

Both these scenarios are unacceptable in a democracy. Democratic exercises such as elections and referendums are not subject to the whims and fancies of the prime minister of the time. Muscat is obliged – on moral grounds, but also legally through the Constitution and various treaties – to ensure that the machinery of democracy keeps ticking over at all times.

To date, his objection to this argument has always been of a partisan nature: the Nationalist Party, he argues, resorted to similar stratagems to avoid local elections. The obvious examples are Marsa and Zejtun in 2004, when elections had to be postponed following a last-minute withdrawal of PN candidates from those localities.

This is a dangerous argument to make. The Nationalist government was likewise criticised for its behaviour on that and other comparable occasions… not least by the Labour Party itself, which had cited the ploy as a threat to democracy. Part of the reason Labour won by such an extensive majority in March 2013 was its promise that it would be a different government from its Nationalist predecessors. Yet here we have the Labour prime minister attempting to justify an anti-democratic measure by pointing towards similar anti-democratic measures taken by the PN: and which he himself had denounced as opposition leader.

Lastly, one must also question Muscat’s assurances of a ‘compromise’.  Last month, the government conducted a hasty ‘public consultation’ exercise on the issue… yet somehow omitted to ‘consult’ either the opposition party or Alternattiva Demokratika, which has an obvious stake in the discussion. A ‘compromise’ suggests that all parties concerned approve the resulting proposals. Two of the main stakeholders have not even been consulted, still less consented to any agreement.

Moreover, Muscat has assured us that this compromise will be acceptable to the ‘majority of the people’. Ironically, there is only one tried and tested measure by which this majority can be ascertained… and that is an election of the kind that Muscat is trying to postpone.

Evidently there is a new definition of the word ‘compromise’ in vogue in government circles at the moment. One hopes that the next word to be redefined is not ‘democracy’.

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