A coalition too far?

Iif the PN-PD coalition is elected to government, and Marlene Farrugia is the only PD MP: would she have enough leverage to stop government from dishing out jobs to the blue eyed boys, or continue the slow destruction of the countryside?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

There is a paradox in the diverse reactions to the (as yet unofficial) PN-PD coalition.

Generally, the proposal has been met with abundant scepticism and derision. For obvious reasons, the Labour media projects the alliance as the desperate act of an opposition party that can no longer (as it always could in the past) win an election single-handedly. Even AD, which has tried to forge electoral alliances of its own in years gone by, described it as the ‘capitulation’ of PD, which is now condemned to be ‘assimilated’.

Nonetheless, there are those who argue that unless there is a rupture in Maltese politics, the only way for small party candidates to stand a chance for parliamentary election is by contesting under on the ticket of a larger party.

And yet, the proposal in itself is not all that bizarre or even unusual. Coalition agreements – often brokered before elections – are the norm in many European democracies. Ironically, they are also better suited (on a very literal level) to our own electoral system. Though it has been tweaked over the years, Malta’s electoral system was modelled on Ireland’s in the 1920s. It is tailored for the election of single candidates, not parties. 

To this day, the parliamentary seats do not constitutionally belong to parties, but to the individual elected as a representative of the people. Political parties were initially viewed merely as vehicles for candidates to get elected. 

It should not therefore surprise us that one of the first governments elected using that system was, in fact, a coalition: the so-called ‘Compact Alliance’ between Strickland’s long-established Constitutional Party, and the Malta Labour Party... then only very recently founded by Col. William Savona.

Up until Independence in 1964, Malta’s parliament was very much a multi-party affair. Today’s duopoly coalesced only after Independence: which also means it is the only political reality anyone younger than 50 will be accustomed to.

In itself, however, this does not make the present system the only one possible, or even desirable. Whatever doubts may exist regarding the PN-PD alliance, on paper the practice conforms perfectly to a democratic model that is prevalent in today’s Europe.

Having said that, doubts do remain. The concern with assimilation, for instance, is certainly not misplaced. One of the problems with the proposed merger is that today’s electoral law (after decades of amendments) does not envisage the possibility of a formal coalition in as many words. Effectively, this means that the smaller party – in this case the Democratic Party, which has not had time to root itself and create a separate identity from its leader – will have to contest as PN candidates, losing any semblance of independence.

Contesting under the PN list should not necessary take away an MP’s freedom to disagree with the PN. But dissenting MPs are not a common sight; and the PN in particular may wish to reconsider the wisdom of allowing itself to be propped up by dissenting backbenchers. The last time this occurred, it did not end well for Gonzi’s government.

The smaller party has more to fear, however. During his hearing as a nominee to the European Court of Auditors, Leo Brincat told MEPs that he had considered resigning after the Panamagate revelations: “but it didn’t make sense because that would only make you a voice in the wilderness. It could make you a hero for a day, and be despised by others ... but ultimately it only renders you without a voice.”

Those words may well describe the situation of a PD member of parliament, in a coalition with the much larger PN. Obviously the precise dynamics would be governed by a coalition agreement, which would include red lines, or the non-negotiable policies. These will set the parameters of the coalition, as happens in other countries where coalitions are the norm.

But if the PN-PD coalition is elected to government, and Marlene Farrugia is the only PD MP: would she have enough leverage to stop government from dishing out jobs to the blue eyed boys, or continue the slow destruction of the countryside? She does not lead a party with its own electoral strength and history behind it. Probably the only scenario which would give Farrugia such power would be if the government had a one seat majority.

Viewed from this angle, Prime Minister Muscat is arguably being strategic by trying to project his government as ‘a choice in favour of stability’. Coalitions are associated with instability in Malta; ironically, the PN was instrumental in establishing that perception, and will now have to fight against it.

Already, the agreement has caused consternation among Nationalist MPs and candidates who see Marlene Farriugia as a threat to their own seat. But probably the biggest question on the PN-PD pact is whether the deal will help the coalition take away any votes from Labour. Will the ‘coalition’ be a more attractive proposition for disgruntled Labourites, switchers or protest voters?

This has yet to be seen, but one thing is already clear. With so much electoral history stacked against it, the only thing that will make a real coalition plausible is electoral reform.