The government has failed to act on recommendations to improve Malta’s electoral system put forward by OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in 2017, and these remain unaddressed.
Many of the election-related issues and debates currently making the headlines had already been detected by OSCE’s Election Assessment Team during Malta’s snap election in June 2017, underscoring how our current electoral system is becoming less and less adequate in serving voters’ needs.
In its latest Needs Assessment Mission Report (NAM) for Malta’s 2022 general elections, the observers noted that there has been limited progress towards implementing previous ODIHR recommendations made in 2017, including those related to the oversight of political and campaign financing, voter eligibility, the public broadcaster, and casual elections.
The transparency of campaign financing
In its Election Assessment Mission report that was published by OSCE following the snap elections in June 2017, one of the recommendations was that “parties’ elections-related income and expenditure should be made public shortly after the elections. Consideration could also be given to introducing a disclosure requirement on income and expenditure before election day.”
As things currently stand, ever since the introduction of the Financing and Political Parties Act in 2015, only three sets of accounts for the years between 2016 and 2018 have been approved and disclosed by the Electoral Commission. When The Shift asked what is stopping the Commission publishing the accounts of political parties from 2019 onwards, the Chief Electoral Commissioner said that these are still being studied by its auditors.
Furthermore, prior to the March 2022 elections, the governing Labour Party had yet to present its 2020 audited accounts to the Electoral Commission according to the law; and while the Nationalist Party submitted its audited accounts for the 2020 financial year last January, the Electoral Commission confirmed to The Shift that Labour’s accounts were still missing, despite various reminders.
The independence of the public broadcaster
Another OSCE recommendation made in 2017 that continues to be ignored by the Maltese authorities is the reform of rules around the appointment of members of the broadcasting regulator and PBS management in a manner which enhances independence in order “to increase public trust and foster representation of wider political positions and societal interests”.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. Despite the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto pledging that it will include people who are “not involved in politics” as part of the Broadcasting Authority’s board of directors, in its current format, the authorities have done nothing to enhance the public broadcaster’s independence.
Not only is Malta’s public broadcaster technically bankrupt but the government continues to appoint party loyalists to its top posts, and continues to exercise a strong influence on the content produced. In September of last year, a study by the Center for Media, Data, and Society classified Malta’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as “state-controlled”. Most recently, former education and foreign minister Evarist Bartolo acknowledged the need for radical change within PBS.
The distortion of contesting two districts and casual elections
Malta’s electoral law allows candidates to contest two electoral districts. If a candidate who contests two districts is elected from both, he or she will have to give up one district. A casual election takes place on the vacated district between unelected candidates in that district.
This may be why in 2017 OSCE observers suggested that “consideration could be given to eliminating the possibility for candidates to contest the elections in two districts and the holding of casual elections as this practice may distort competition and produce results that do not fully reflect the voters’ will”.
This issue has returned to the forefront of debate as the two main political parties elect individuals to parliament that failed to garner enough votes during the first round of vote counting, including candidates such as Rosianne Cutajar who was surrounded by controversy during the last legislature, and Glenn Bedingfield, the government’s principal propagandist habitually deployed to counter criticism of the Labour government.
Furthermore, ADPD, Malta’s longest-standing alternative to PL and PN, announced that it has filed a constitutional court case against the state over discriminatory electoral processes.
ADPD, which obtained 4,747 votes in the 2022 general elections, is arguing that given the fact that the party’s vote count has surpassed the national quota for representation, the electoral commission’s proportionality mechanisms are skewed in favour of the two major parties.
The flawed gender corrective mechanism
In its 2017 recommendations, OSCE suggested that “consideration could be given to encouraging women’s political participation through the introduction of temporary special measures.”
In January last year, parliament approved a new law that allows up to 12 extra seats to be awarded to the under-represented gender. However, this instrument will only apply if two political parties are elected to parliament. The law allows the Electoral Commission to determine that if any gender representation falls below 40%, most likely to be women, then extra seats are awarded to either side of the House to be filled by unelected women candidates in a bid to reach the 40% threshold.
While this may sound fair in principle given Malta’s abysmally low percentage of women in parliament, this new law is already proving deeply problematic.
To begin with, the law was passed without the proposed amendments which would have covered the addition of seats even if a third party is elected. This issue has already been flagged by independent candidate Arnold Cassola who is also challenging the new law in court on the basis that this system benefits solely the two major political parties.
Secondly, the law doesn’t address the systemic structural and cultural barriers to the representation of women in parliament and their participation in political life, including pervasive gender stereotypes and a male-dominated political sphere. We may wish to ask ourselves why we have so few women in politics and why the few that do choose to enter are not being elected.
However, nothing encapsulates the flaws of the gender quota system quite like the decision by PN candidate Janice Chetcuti to forego the casual election and get elected via the gender quota mechanism to make room for a male candidate at the expense of another woman.
The purpose of the Needs Assessment Mission is to evaluate the pre-electoral environment and the preparation for an election that was undertaken in Malta following an invitation from the Maltese authorities to observe the parliamentary elections of the 26 March.
Following the publication of ODIHR’s NAM Report, the organisation encouraged the authorities to consider its previous recommendations – which have remained unaddressed – and concluded that a closer examination of certain issues was warranted, thus recommending the deployment of an Election Expert Team (EET) for Malta’s March elections.
A record low voter turnout, an increase in the voiding of ballots, and an increase in preference for third-party candidates are clearly signalling that Malta’s electoral system requires some substantial, deep changes to better reflect voters’ needs and preferences.
The fact that OSCE/ODIHR noted how many of its recommendations remain unaddressed suggests that there is a stubborn unwillingness from both major political parties to implement them.