Let’s give Rosianne Cutajar her due. After she failed to be directly elected last weekend, she gave her views about the current electoral system. She urges electoral reform, saying the current system privileges ministers and the alphabetical order in which candidates are listed.
Guess what? She just narrowly missed being elected on the sixth district because a minister, Ian Borg, pipped her on the 20th count after she had been ahead of him all the way.
What tipped the balance? The votes inherited from a candidate whose name began with the letter A – Malcolm Agius Galea – most of whose votes went to the candidate whose name began with B — Borg — rather than Cutajar.
Yes, your suspicious mind is right. Agius Galea was Malcolm Galea until he became an electoral candidate and added his wife’s maiden name before his own surname.
Fancy that, a woman politician losing her seat to a man getting in touch with his feminist side. Just like the former Alex Saliba, now Agius Saliba, Labour MEP.
Cutajar is going to be elected anyway, through the casual election or the new quota for women. But is she right that the electoral system needs reform? And how much?
Robert Abela has broached the idea of drastically reducing the number of electoral districts — to half or even just one, as with MEP elections. Others have pitched in helpfully to explain that having the whole country as a single district would be more rational, reducing the possibility of patronage.
Of all the things that are wrong with our electoral politics, it seems like the biggest problem is you, the voter.
The alphabetical vote is called the ‘donkey vote’. And the blame for patronage is, funnily enough, assigned to the voters, not the politicians who have made the administrative system’s decision-making increasingly more dependent on them, with plenty of room for arbitrariness and partiality.
The donkey vote is not the decisive factor in determining who gets elected. The new MPs include a host of candidates disadvantaged by their surname: Alison Zerafa Civelli, Mark Anthony Sammut and Justin Schembri.
The alphabet makes a random difference for the people just scraping through. However, last week’s results are not random.
All nine Labour candidates elected on both districts were ministers, all capable of dispensing patronage.
Patronage on its own is not enough, though. José Herrera — who awarded €3.2 million in direct orders in six months of 2020 when events were banned, who awarded two-thirds of funds for festa NGOs to groups in his own electoral district — was not elected.
He was outperformed by Labour district rivals who were noticeably more accessible to their voters. The district was topped by a newcomer, Keith Azzopardi Tanti, who had spent every weekday conducting home visits, Saturdays in district offices spread over four towns, and Sundays at clubs and events.
Several other new MPs, both Labour and Nationalist, had Azzopardi Tanti’s work rate. They attribute their success to systemic home visits over the long haul.
When they say home visits keep them in touch with ordinary people’s problems, they’re not just spouting pearls of piety. If you visit enough houses, certain patterns of problems, difficulties, changing household composition and culture begin to emerge.
A good politician will gain insight into the individual policy solutions needed for a changing country. A great politician will fit the pieces of the mosaic into a larger vision. Close contact with voters is good for our politics.
There’s no single magic bullet to electoral success. The CVs of ministers reveal people who have been involved in politics for decades, even if, like Ian Borg or Byron Camilleri, they’re still in their mid-30s. They became involved in their teens — sometimes earlier, if their parents were also politicians or notable canvassers, like Clint Camilleri and Alex Borg (both 13th district).
And let’s not forget the tap from the Party leader or machine, which helped the PN’s new candidates, like Mark Anthony Sammut (who was also assiduous with home visits), and Labour’s Jonathan Attard, Clyde Caruana and Andy Ellul (ordained by co-option in the previous parliament).
Of all the major factors, close contact with MPs is the only one that can lead voters to form their judgement independently of the Party machine. Drastically reducing the number of electoral districts will mean that direct contact with voters will become weaker. Larger districts will make it impossible for anything more than very selective home visits.
The less important that districts becomes, the more important it is to be given a high profile by the Party on its media and at its events. The Party machine, and especially the leader, will gain greater control over the fate of individual MPs.
Politicians will not have ‘more time’ for their proper work as MPs. Being an MP is about knowing your electors, not losing touch with them.
A single district Malta will produce national politicians who are Party hacks, who use their available time politicking within the Party, jockeying for position and prominence.
A national election with dozens of Party candidates is not like an MEP election, where the number of Party candidates is a handful. We will end up voting for candidates we don’t know.
What about third Parties, handicapped by the current system as their national support is fragmented across districts? That’s a valid objection but it can be met with a specific remedy: establishing a national threshold that would guarantee seats.
The point of giving third Parties their due is to recognise voter choice. If we upend the entire system by reducing the country to a single district, or very few, voter choices will be effectively weakened. The Parties of government will end up choosing their MPs on our behalf. What we’ll get is a parliament of Randolph Debattista’s, coopted by Labour because it wasn’t satisfied with voter preferences.
We don’t have to have 13 electoral districts. But a drastic reduction of that number will further reduce the power of our choice. We would end up ticking boxes with a shrug. That system would make donkeys of us all.