They’re at it again. The two major Parties are discussing how to reform what you can do with your vote. And, once more, their judgement is in question.
The problem isn’t the individuals. Labour’s Michael Falzon has several stains on his record as a government politician; but he’s Labour’s expert on the mechanics of our electoral system and earned the Nationalist Party’s respect, a decade and a half ago, for his knowledge and constructiveness when the major parties were last in serious discussion.
Likewise for Hermann Schiavone: think what you will about his PN leadership preferences (past and present) but he does understand how our electoral system works. He literally has a PhD on the subject.
Knowledge of the mechanics isn’t enough: you need to put it at the service of a democratic vision. But let’s not underestimate what knowledge of the mechanics means. We have a voting system that not many voters understand.
The vote can work in arcane ways. If you’re a candidate whose best chances lie in a casual election when a big politician in your Party gives up his or her seat, then it’s in your interest to tell your family and voters to give you their No. 2 vote – after giving the No. 1 to that big politician.
In rare circumstances, voting for yourself can lead to being eliminated in a casual election: this actually happened two decades ago to a former PN minister. Explaining why is complicated – because the chain of consequences is ramified and with room for random luck.
It’s also a powerful system whose potential isn’t exploited enough by voters.
Shouldn’t a Nationalist from a Labour stronghold like Paola, or a Labourite voting in Sliema, have an interest in who, among the opponents, he or she would like to see in parliament? You might not want them in government but you might somehow prefer Chris Fearne to Konrad Mizzi. Our voting system allows you to vote across parties.
You might want to vote for a third Party but simultaneously want to choose the prime minister from the only two candidates available. So, you exploit the fact that you effectively vote for a prime minister when you vote for any candidate on his Party list. You give your No. 1 vote for a candidate who has no chance of being elected – but who’s from the same Party as your preferred prime minister – and then switch to voting for your third Party.
Disgusted with your Party leader but still want to help your local MPs because they’re decent? You vote No. 1 for some crazed independent with no chance of getting a dozen votes, and then switch to your MPs. They’ll return to parliament, hopefully, but your vote will be interpreted correctly by the Party representatives in the counting hall. You can have it both ways: use your vote and spoil it.
Our vote is powerful and we underuse it – but is the system nonetheless rigged in favour of the big Parties? And what would be needed to make it fair?
Answering these questions goes beyond knowledge of the mechanics. They involve broader political judgement. The two major Parties have long preferred single-party government, believing coalitions to lead to Italian-like instability.
But that’s not a judgement of coalition government as such. They’re aware as the rest of us that continental Europe has stable coalitions. But they think we’re more like the Italians than the Germans when it comes to how junior coalition Parties are likely to behave and whether voters will forgive them for it.
It’s a curious view: simultaneously pessimistic about fellow politicians while giving them a pass. It’s not coalitions that have made Italian governments unstable: it’s corruption, which has made it difficult to agree on necessary reforms to the electoral system itself, good governance and so on.
Germany has a system that expects coalition partners to negotiate a joint programme of government before teaming up officially. Voters also punish politicians of their own Party if they renege on their commitments.
People who think we’re more likely to be like the Italians, if we have coalition governments, are essentially saying they don’t expect our politicians to be able to negotiate a programme and then stick to it. They expect political parties to be fronts, in some cases, for personal interests.
They’re also, however, exempting politicians from behaving ethically – thinking they’ll get away with it.
If that’s your expectation, however, then you shouldn’t expect a stable government at all. At least, not a government that gives stability to the country.
The last four years have been a textbook case of how a government that’s secure in parliament can destabilise the country with its recklessness. Its security in parliament made it more difficult for its manifest corruption to be checked and mistakes to be corrected. It may have been a decisive government but its catastrophic mistakes were due precisely because it was able to act by suffocating dissent.
Democracies aren’t distinguished from authoritarian systems because their voters are happier. On the contrary, voter disgust at the mediocrity of democratic politicians is typical. What makes it, as Churchill said, the best system available is democracies’ ability to dig themselves out of deep holes by responding quickly to voter outrage. Democracies make more mistakes but they fix more too.
We don’t need to draw a halo around coalition governments. In Europe, from Italy to Denmark, coalition governments have sometimes included right-wing Parties that dictated a bigoted agenda.
But in Malta’s case, the record is clear. We should be careful what we wish for. A coalition government (if that’s what voters want) isn’t half the threat to the country’s stability than that represented by a government with a huge majority, subservient to an all-powerful leader, unrestrained by ethics or independent institutions.