It’s about more than two seats

The way the discussion has since developed indicates that we are very far from solving the underlying systemic problems that make our cumbersome electoral process so prone to such mistakes in the first place.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent Constitutional Court ruling which granted an additional two seats to the Nationalist Party – after mistakes had been made at the counting hall during the last election – has once again lifted the lid on the many shortcomings in our electoral system.

The mistakes concerned the allocation of a batch of 50 votes on the eighth district, which resulted in the PL’s Edward Scicluna being elected on the strength of only eight more votes than PN candidate Claudette Buttigieg. Another 10 votes went missing in the 10th district, where Labour’s Justyne Caruana pipped PN candidate Frederick Azzopardi to the post by just nine votes.

Both mistakes were acknowledged by the Electoral Commission.

On the surface, the Opposition was right to challenge the results. Even if the error ultimately made little difference to the outcome of the election itself, our electoral process is nonetheless based on the principle that ‘every vote counts’. We cannot pay lip service to that principle, while at the same time glossing over a mistake in the counting process that nullified the effects of at least 60 individual votes.

However, the way the discussion has since developed indicates that we are very far from solving the underlying systemic problems that make our cumbersome electoral process so prone to such mistakes in the first place. Now that the Constitutional Court has acceded to the Opposition’s request for an additional two seats, the focus of the debate has shifted onto whether these seats should be apportioned immediately, as urged by the Opposition… or after the appeals process, as insisted by government.

But this approach makes the mistake of only looking at the situation from the two parties’ perspectives, to the exclusion of all other considerations. It ignores the fact that Malta’s electoral law is itself the result of endless legal and political tinkering over the years, aimed mostly at maximising the advantages such a flawed process may have for one party or another. 

By focusing only on those aspects of the problem which have negative effects on one party or another, one inevitably overlooks the bigger picture: i.e., that our electoral system, as a whole, does not always translate into a strict representation of what the electorate actually voted for in any given election.

Recent elections have time and again illustrated this simple fact. While the two main parties argue about whether a handful of votes in one district should have elected this or that candidate, the reality is that thousands of individual votes, cast in every election, simply do not count at all. On one level, the system itself produces wastage. The single transferable vote system implies that votes of candidates who are elected will be ‘inherited’, in numerical order, down the ballot sheet. 

However, there are certain circumstances – too complex to be explained in detail here – whereby a candidate will be eliminated, and the remaining voter preferences on those ballot sheets will not be counted at all. In practice, this translates into thousands of votes which are simply bypassed by the counting process altogether.   

Elsewhere, the system has been tweaked to minimise the possibility that more than two parties are ever elected to Parliament. From this perspective it seems strange that so much heated debate now arises over a difference of a handful first count votes in one particular district… when a political party like Alternattiva Demokratika garnered over 5,000 first count votes in March 2013, yet was not awarded a single seat.

The anomaly becomes all the more glaring when one also factors in the 1987 Constitutional amendment, which last sprang into action in 2008. In a bid to avoid a repeat of the contentious 1981 election result, both Labour and Nationalist parties agreed to a mechanism which automatically grants ‘additional seats’ in cases where a party will have won a majority of votes, without the parliamentary majority this should theoretically entail.

In 2008, the PN won a relative majority of votes but not of seats… triggering a mechanism which awarded that party an additional four seats to account for a vote difference of just over 1,000 votes. AD garnered five times that amount in the same election, and again failed to elect a representative to Parliament.

Clearly, the system in its present form cannot guarantee proportionality in every election. Nor can it even guarantee justice with the electorate, which is its main raison d’etre. This reality has now been acknowledged by all parties as both unjust and indicative of a democratic deficit. Yet it has consistently proved beyond the capabilities of the two parties in parliament to ever resolve the situation once and for all.

This week, senior representatives of both parties agreed that the electoral process needs to be reviewed. Past efforts (such as the Gonzi Commission) have always fallen at the last hurdle… often because the individual parties have a habit of placing their own immediate interests ahead of the democratic principle itself.

Until the two parties finally overcome this inbuilt tendency once and for all, no amount of discussion or debate will ever translate into a lasting reform of a system we all acknowledge to be faulty.

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