Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Elections in a democracy

The Times, 2 March 2015
http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20150302/opinion/Elections-in-a-democracy.558155




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 www.electoralintegrityproject.com.

No comments: