Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Elections in a democracy

The Times, 2 March 2015

Afghanistan, Syria, Bahrain, Mozambique and Egypt had the worst elections last year. In contrast, the best elections that took place in 2014 were those in Lithuania, Costa Rica, Sweden, Slovenia and Uruguay.

This results from a global survey among expert respondents, carried out by the Electoral Integrity Project. This independent scholarly project analyses electoral integrity, standards and governance and is supported by various agencies including the Australian Research Council, the University of Sydney and Harvard University.

The study evaluates the integrity of 127 national parliamentary and presidential contests between July 2012 and December 2014 in 107 countries worldwide. Some countries are ranked twice due to more than one election or contest during this period.

Some interesting findings include that the United States, which had presidential elections in 2012 and legislative (mid-term) elections last year, scored lowest among western democracies, especially due to its electoral laws and voter registration procedures.

The greatest risk of failed elections were in Africa and the Middle East, though there were clear exceptions such as elections and contests in Tunisia, Mauritius and South Africa. Established democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands score highly, as do newer democracies like Lithuania and Slovenia.

Malta is in the 35th place, below Italy (32nd) and Grenada (33rd) but ahead of countries such as Argentina (39th), the United States (42nd and 45th), Bulgaria (54th), India (55th) and Turkey (86th).

The methodology of this project gives points (out of 100) to a number of indicators. Based on the 2013 general election, Malta scores relatively high in vote count (92 points), electoral procedures (89), electoral results (83) and electoral authorities (82) but does worse in electoral laws (60), media coverage (56) and campaign finance (51).

Malta’s final ‘perception of electoral integrity’ score is 72, equivalent to Tunisia’s. Norway, ranking first, gets 87, and Equatorial Guinea a low 38, based on its legislative election in 2013.

Some other results of note show the mixed fortunes of countries in Latin America. Venezuela has a relatively low ranking (110th, with 51 points) which is hardly surprising considering the increasingly authoritarian antics of a government, which initially had noble aims of social justice and equality. This country lost rankings in just one year, when it was ranked 77th.

On the other hand, leftist Uruguay ranks 10th (82 points) and Costa Rica does even better, at fourth place (85 points). This is a country which is known for its ambitious environmental policy connected to climate change and sustainability.

Some key findings of this study were that liberal democracy and quality of elections are significantly correlated and that more affluent societies tended to score well, though this was not a linear trend. Historical experience of democracy did not determine current integrity scores, as some new democracies around the world did relatively well, surpassing the older US democracy. Indeed, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, both former Soviet satellites, rank second and third respectively.

The project recommends that democracy, development and power-sharing constitutions and institutions enhance electoral integrity. On the other hand, disparities in political finance and media coverage are among the most serious risks.

This takes us back to Malta. Indeed, our electoral laws remain tilted in favour of the two-party system. For example, in the last general election, Alternattiva Demokratika won more first-preference votes than the quota for a parliamentary seat. However, given that these votes were dispersed in different districts, the Greens remained out of Parliament.

A way out of this deficit would be to retain the established system based on districts but to establish a national threshold for parliamentary representation.

As regards media coverage, even the most recent Eurobarometer survey confirms a relatively low trust rate of the media. One should note that, even though Malta has an established independent press, television is still overwhelmed by ultra-partisanship in the form of stations owned by political parties and a national station that is more often than not tilted towards the party in government, whether Labour or Nationalist.

Malta’s low mark for campaign finance is not a surprise. The last general election was a clear exercise in lack of transparency and raised a lot of questions as to whether possible campaign sponsors are reaping their electoral investment. The Labour government’s proposed introduction of legislation on party financing improves things but I do not think it will lead to a level playing field.

State financing of political parties, on the other hand, can increase equity, transparency and accountability.

Political parties would receive funds that are proportional to their electoral support but, in the first instance, they would have to abide by clear rules with regard to their financial programmes.

On the other hand, Malta’s positives, such as high marks in vote count and electoral procedures, convey legitimacy, which is essential for social cohesion. In this context, Malta’s democracy can be deemed to be agonistic, being represented by adversaries rather than enemies. Indeed, the violence and lack of trust that prevailed in Malta in the 1980s eventually gave way to more civil engagement among different political identities.

Concrete reforms in areas such as the electoral system can help translate Malta’s positives in further democratisation with respect to party politics.

More information on the Electoral Integrity Project can be obtained from

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nearly two years of Labour

The Times, Monday 23 February 2015

In the 2013 general election, Labour swept to victory for various reasons. In my reading, this had little to do with Malta’s economic situation.I believe that Labour’s immense victory had more to do with its successful articulation of the ‘common enemy’, namely the Nationalist government.

To do this, Labour carefully made promises to specific groups on various issues. These ranged from environmental and civil rights issues, erstwhile championed by the Green Party and NGOs, to specific promises to rent-seeking groups ready to switch political support as long as their specific demands were met.

It also had to do with Labour’s successful articulation of Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist government as being arrogant, non-meritocratic, out of touch with the aspirations of many people and so forth.

An important turning point towards Labour’s victory was the divorce referendum. The Nationalist Party seemed detached from the individualisation and reflexivity of family life. Gonzi also seemed unable to manage defections and prima-donna antics of certain backbenchers and seemed powerless next to the arrogance of certain ministers.

To make matters worse, the Gonzi government extended its life to its absolute limit when it was clear that it lost legitimacy.

On the other hand, the Gonzi government had a good number of merits. Apart from the adoption of the euro and the successful steering of the Maltese economy away from the global economic crisis and the southern European storm, there were also other successes. These included Malta’s international profile in the Libya crisis and the beautification of Valletta.

Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is now firmly in place and seems to enjoy considerable support.

The new Labour government introduced much-needed reforms such as increasing universal access to childcare services, specific educational targets, various LGBT rights and moving away from oil dependence.

It has managed to maintain the relative economic stability it inherited from the PN government, including low unemployment rates, though economic performance does not necessarily mean victory at the polls, as the 1996 and 2013 elections proved.

Labour has also partly fulfilled certain electoral pledges, such as reducing utility bills, though, I suspect, this comes at certain costs, presumably including Malta’s relatively high petrol and diesel prices.

Indeed, Labour’s governing strategy does have its negatives. For example, economic growth seems to focus very much on unbridled construction, mega projects, energy dependence on new oligarchs and the selling of citizenship for cash, apart from more legitimate areas such as tourism.

What happens when we have sold all we had to sell?

On meritocracy, it seems that Labour has run out of committees. New roles were invented to ensure that loyal soldiers are paid their electoral dividends.

Though I see nothing wrong with having strategic policymakers having ideological proximity with the party in government, when appointments are not deemed meritocratic they come at a cost. They cause disappointment among more qualified and deserving contenders, they give a sense of disenchantment among voters who give value to meritocracy and they cause resentment among excluded loyalists who are likewise expecting electoral dividends.

The meritocratic mess has been made worse when certain Labour members of Parliament have been given two, three and sometimes more roles while making big money in the process. In the meantime, precarious employment and low wages are widespread.

On the energy issue, it seems that lack of transparency is the order of the day. Legitimate questions on Enemalta, energy provision, petrol, diesel, utility bills, Enemed, you name it, are being asked but answers and documentation is lacking.

It seems that energy oligarchs and cartels are running the show while regulatory authorities are conspicuous by their absence.

As regards the environment, Labour is doing the unthinkable, namely having a worse performance than preceding governments in areas such as land development. The construction lobby is clearly in command, with policies seemingly tailor-made to suit its needs.

Malta seems destined to further uglification, urban sprawl, endless construction, shading, increased traffic and so forth. Landscape and space have been rendered to mere commodities for maximum exploitation, with scant consideration to open spaces, residents’ rights and quality of life.

Malta is already reaching a situation where new development is taking place in front of other new development.

Valletta is not spared from such policies. Our capital city has been subject to progressive beautification in recent years, with Renzo Piano’s project being a masterpiece which created so much space.

Now it seems that cultural vandalism will take place right at the doorstep of Piano’s project. From a monument in celebration of the capital’s beauty, we will have a monti monument that represents an apparent mishmash of electoral deals.

When criticised, the Labour government is using the previous Nationalist administration as a crutch. The fallback answer to any question: traffic, environmental damage, energy, finance, the weather is “PN did worse, PN left the mess”.

In the 2013 electoral campaign I saw no billboards stating “Vote PL, we will blame PN for every problem”.

The Maltese electorate did not elect Labour to remind us of its predecessors.

Significant sections of the electorate may be reaping the fruits of their electoral investment. But others are not and this includes reflexive civil society organisations and many voters who do not vote on the basis of what they can obtain from the State apparatus. Such voters possess a niche potential to shift the balance of power.