Electoral reform could see ADPD in parliament but the chances of a coalition government remain remote. Mark Laurence Zammit explains why.
Electoral reforms being mooted by the two main parties will make it easier for third parties to win a seat in parliament, but almost impossible for them to hold the balance of power and hence be part of a coalition government.
Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon and Nationalist MP Hermann Schiavone, two electoral experts, told Times of Malta plans are in hand to possibly introduce a national threshold, which would enable a third party to be represented in parliament if it wins five per cent of the overall vote, around 17,000 votes nationwide.
However, they agree that if a third party is elected to parliament this way and none of the parties get more than half of total votes – known as an absolute majority – then the party that wins the most votes should have a seat top-up and be able to govern.
Third parties say this is unfair, because it would prevent them from joining forces with another party and create a coalition government.
“We are all in favour of a national threshold, but we need to be able to ensure a stable governance,” Falzon said.
“We can’t risk scenarios similar to what happened in Italy, where the government is extremely unstable.”
Schiavone says a third party may still form a coalition if its candidates are elected traditionally from within individual districts, as is the case today.
“But it wouldn’t be fair for a party to have that power over governance if it is elected with a mere 17,000 votes. Because that would mean 17,000 voters would have the power to topple a party that the majority of people wanted in government.”
Schiavone also said that the PN was in favour of extending the ‘gender imbalance mechanism’ to smaller parties with at least five seats in parliament, and of having casual elections held on the day the results are declared – so that the prime minister would have his full parliamentary group in place when deciding on his cabinet.
Talk of electoral reform started on September 20, when Prime Minister Robert Abela urged the country to start a debate.
How does our system work?
Even though many people’s intention is to vote for a party, in Malta we actually vote for candidates. Our entire system is designed to elect individuals, so much so that the concept of political parties only made it into the constitution in 1987.
Therefore, a party assumes victory not because people vote specifically for it, but because its candidates get the largest amount of number one votes.
But for a party to be able to govern, an absolute majority of votes is not enough. It also needs an absolute majority of seats in parliament. For this reason, the road to Castille is not as easy as getting the largest number of votes.
On one occasion, for example, a party got more than half of the country’s votes, therefore securing an absolute majority, but less than half of parliament’s seats.
This happened in the 1981 election which saw Eddie Fenech Adami’s PN win the popular vote with 50.9 per cent compared to Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party at 49.1 per cent, but Mintoff’s PL got 34 seats in parliament, as opposed to Fenech Adami’s 31 seats. This happened due to the manner in which the electoral districts were drawn up.
A constitutional and political crisis followed and Labour held on to power until 1987, leading to a constitutional amendment on majority rule. Since 1987, any party getting an absolute majority of votes but less than half the seats has its seats topped up until it has a one-seat parliamentary majority.
As a result of another constitutional amendment, in 1996, if none of the two parties secure an absolute majority of votes, then the party with a relative majority will be guaranteed a parliamentary majority.
One final electoral reform occurred in 2007. This dealt with the allocation of seats to parties on the basis of national first preference percentage totals, i.e. making the seats allocated more proportional to the percentage of votes obtained.
But what if three parties make it to parliament? Our current system also permits third parties to make it to parliament if they get enough votes.
If one party secures an absolute majority of votes and seats, then it governs, no questions asked. But what if none of the parties secure an absolute majority of votes and seats and a third party gets elected to parliament? In that case, the parties between them will have to enter negotiations to form a parliamentary majority.
In such a scenario, any two parties may join forces, and if combined, they secure more than half of parliamentary seats, they may form a coalition government. They may do so, irrespective of their popular vote.
So let us say PL, PN and ADPD all make it to parliament. Labour gets the most votes and most seats, but none of the parties secure an absolute majority of seats. If PN and ADPD join forces and form a parliamentary majority, then they may very well head to Castille. In this case, even though Labour got the most votes and perhaps even the most seats, it will not form a government.
This has never happened in Malta so far, because no third party has managed to be elected it parliament since independence, but it is very common in most other European countries, where coalition governments are the order of the day.
So then, what is the problem?
This is where sparks fly in our national debate about electoral reform, because small, third parties claim the Maltese system is rigged against them, making it almost impossible for them to make it to parliament.
This is because for any party to set foot in parliament, it needs to secure 16.6 per cent of number one votes in any of the 13 districts. With our current number of registered voters, that would mean each party needs to get around 4,000 votes in one district.
The problem is this: For PN and PL, getting 4,000 votes in any given district is easy, but for small parties it is currently impossible. To put this into perspective, in 2017, AD only secured 2,564 votes nationwide.
This is why the Green Party has been calling for an electoral reform which would make it possible for them to make it to parliament.
One way to achieve this is to set a national threshold – a concept all parties seem to be agreeing on. Both PL and PN suggest it should be set at five per cent.
This would mean any party may set foot in parliament given that it secures at least five per cent of votes nationwide. Germany also has a five-per-cent national threshold, but other countries have an even lower percentage. In Israel’s case, it is just one per cent.
With the current number of registered voters in Malta, five per cent means approximately 17,000 votes.
The implementation of a national threshold would be good news for third parties, but even then, they would still have a long way to go.
To put it into perspective, AD secured 5,500 number one votes in 2013, the highest ever. This translates into 1.8 per cent of the nationwide vote. In 2017, they secured an even lower 0.83 per cent.
This is why they are pushing for a lower threshold.
Both PL and PN claim they have no problem with third parties joining them in parliament by means of this nationwide threshold. However, they are insisting that if a third party joins parliament and none of the three parties get an absolute majority of votes and seats, the party with the most votes will still be entitled to a top-up until it gets an absolute majority of seats and is therefore able to govern by itself.
This system of seat rewards is famously known as premio maggioranza. This implies that a nationwide threshold may enable a third party to be in parliament but not to form a coalition government, because even though they may occupy more seats if they join forces with another party, they may never govern because the system will reward a majority of seats to the party with the most votes.
This is infuriating to third parties and they say it is anti-democratic, but PL and PN insist that is the only way to ascertain a stable government.
‘Designed to favour the big parties’
Carmel Cacopardo – Chairperson ADPD
“Our electoral system is discriminatory and whenever corrective mechanisms were implemented, they were designed to favour the big parties.
“ADPD is pushing for a national threshold of 2.5 per cent and is adamantly against the premio maggioranza.
“The big parties say they want stability but in fact they want control, and that’s why they will reward unearned seats.
“Look at most European countries; they are run by coalition governments, and they’re all stable governments.
“The system does not need to be changed, and neither does the
number of districts. Rather, it is the way we count the votes that needs to change.
“Parliament can retain the number of MPs it has now, but each district would elect three candidates, and not five.
“The remaining 26 seats from all districts are filled proportionally, taking into account the party’s number of votes, the national threshold and the gender-balance mechanism. This way parliament won’t grow in size and will be more representative.
“We can’t simply top up every time there is disproportionality or gender imbalance. If the gender-balance mechanism is used to its full potential, we will see the next parliament bloat to around 80 MPs, and that’s too much.
“Proportionality is everything, and it needs to be applicable for everyone, because right now, it discriminates against small parties. The gender-balance mechanism does not apply to third parties, for instance. Why does it have to be that way?”
‘Reform talk is fallacious’
Arnold Cassola – Independent
“This talk about electoral reform is all fallacious. First of all, I don’t get why Robert Abela needs to kick-start a discussion. We know how and what to debate, and we don’t need the prime minister to tell us when to do it.
“Secondly, sensible democracies begin electoral reform debates at the beginning of a new term, and not six months ahead of an election. I don’t believe any real reform will begin ahead of election, and even if it does happen after, I suspect it will all be rigged in the big parties’ favour, as it has always been since 1987.
“I am pushing for a national threshold of three per cent and I’m also unwavering about the premio maggioranza.
“This is how PL and PN are making sure nobody other than themselves has some real influence on the country’s decision-making process.
“The same happened with the gender- balance mechanism. The mechanism completely rules out the possibility of women from third parties to set foot in parliament. This wasn’t made for women; it was made for Labourite and Nationalist women.
“Robert Abela urging for an electoral reform debate may perhaps have something to do with his relationship with Joseph Muscat.
“We all heard what Muscat said in his interview in Times of Malta, that he’d consider running again. Could it be that Abela wants to somehow hinder Muscat from running on an independent ticket in the next MEP elections?
“Why would Abela want reform now? Not because he’s afraid of me, that’s for sure.”
‘We need fewer MPs’
Franco Debono – Former PN MP and lawyer who has campaigned forconstitutional reform
“We have too many politicians in this country and this is enabling a rampant culture of clientelism and nepotism.
“I believe the solution is to have a smaller parliament of full-time MPs.
“The country should ideally be split in seven districts and seven candidates are elected from each district, bringing the total number of MPs to 49.
“Luxembourg has a population of 600,000 and has less MPs than we do and a few months ago, the Italians shrunk the size of their parliament by a third.
“In the UK, a British district of 70,000 people elects one MP, here a district of 25,000 people elects five. And we keep adding seats. It’s easy to add seats, but nobody seems to have the courage to take seats away. Even our cabinet is too big. We will have so many politicians, you won’t be able to sneeze without an MP offering you a tissue.
“People in Malta are too familiar with politicians and this is the source of bare-faced clientelism and epidemic nepotism of Maltese society.
“If we have less MPs and all of them work on a full-time basis, they will be more focused on the service to their country and less focused on going to every funeral and baptism in their district.
“If one MP represents many more people, then it will be way more difficult for him or her to serve the requests of individual constituents.”
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