The people have spoken
… and they had a hell of a message to deliver. Last week I spoke about augurs reading the signs of the future. This week the electoral animal has been slaughtered and the entrails are the new signs to be read. The main protagonist in this campaign was Dr Alfred Sant. I will not bore you with “I told you so” declarations but there is no denying that the Harvard Doctor’s presence had a direct effect every single voter’s final decision.
True, there were underlying reasons and considerations to be taken on board before marking your ballot with the number 1 sign but they paled into quasi-insignificance when balanced against the Alfred Sant factor. Last week I outlined the AS factor when examining the positions taken by each party in the election run-up. Much has been said about the PN using the former Leader of the Opposition as the strongest weapon in their arsenal. As for the Labour party itself it ran headlong into an election it could only lose and did just that by banking on a formula that had already been proven to be faulty to say the least. AD, on its part waddled blindly into the arena and chose to play all the wrong cards at the wrong time. The Coalition Gambit was electoral naïveté to say the least – one that was pounced upon by the sleek PN machine. The PN got handed a bonus use of the Alfred Sant factor – this time to the detriment of the smaller alternatives.
In the Land of the Blind
The one-eyed man is King. The people handed the crown to a party that won by default. Which is unfair in many ways. To begin with, it is unfair on the very party that is in government today. Its achievements over the past years did not merit this kind of appraisal by default. Joining the eurozone is the latest of aims to which the Nationalist government has ably managed us. They had other trumpets to blow, and they did blow a few of them – employment and education reform being two big areas of which GonziPN was proud. Education indeed – gigantic strides had been made in this sector under the able guidance of Minister Louis Galea : and the results were there to be seen and for the voters to endorse.
Unfortunately for the PN and sadly for the electorate, the campaign could not hinge on these facts. It hinged on Keeping Sant out. I risk repeating last week’s arguments here but it can never be sufficiently stressed that the only culprit for Labour’s loss this election is Labour itself. The politics of spiting the other reached gargantuan proportions when Labour persisted with Alfred Sant. This choice represented a persistence with the baggage that the PN campaign highlighted time and time again. The No to EU. The No to the Introduction of the Euro. The Twisted interpretation of Referendum Results. The VAT-CET saga. Need I go on? Labour lost its chance to be the party for change. They chose instead to have another go at the victory by default method.
Probably Labour counted on the fact of electoral fatigue – after 20 years of PN the people would want change for the sake of it. They counted on the fact that no European government has ever been confirmed after introducing the euro. They counted on the disgruntled who would vote out of spite. And so they waved the Alfred Sant – angry, incorruptible, intransigent Alfred Sant in people’s faces. Do you hear the distant sound of a spinning boomerang? Duck before it is too late.
There were of course many who spoke out in favour of change. Notwithstanding all the PN achievements they had begun to see the signs of a government cracking under complacency. You do not need to poll the people to feel that. The signs were clear from the party in government itself. Watching its electoral campaign unfold was an interesting experiment. The image of the party in government morphed as each campaign day passed. Gone were the bumbling Ministers from the PM’s entourage. For four weeks even the party changed its name. As E-day came closer, the entreaties to those who would have voted for change increased. We’ll have a new cabinet. Environment will be our top priority. Hell, at one point even the dreaded coalition shifted from being a no-no to something that will be considered once the people have spoken.
In the meantime the figures started to accumulate. The first signs of the discontent with this vote by default system were the uncollected votes. These were destined to be added to the unused votes and the votes for third parties. They were the votes that did not go for the big two. In all three cases they can be considered as an abstention from the big question – Do you want to keep Alfred Sant out? The Daphne’s of this world will cry “irresponsible and immature”, they will accuse such voters of not bearing the responsibility of the consequence of their vote or lack of it. I tend to agree insofar as non-voters are concerned. As for those who opted for third parties I would not be so unkind. They too were the victims of the “vote by default”.
True, an unquantifiable amount of voters chose the Nose-Peg option. For the greater good they chose to hold their nose and vote for the party they considered the “lesser evil”. For, as I said earlier, notwithstanding the government’s achievements the signs of complacency had begun to show. Arrogance was a prime factor. Instances of corruption or lax administration was another. The perceived danger of a government by Alfred Sant tilted the balance for these people. I do not blame them. What I do blame is whoever takes the importance of this kind of vote lightly. Thankfully there are signs that not everyone has fallen into this trap. AZAD chief, Ranier Fsadni has recently written about the polyphonic ballot “voters able to speak with more than one voice, using their vote to manage a multiple identity that cannot be satisfied with an either/or logic”.
To my mind these are the signs that need to be read carefully once the euphoria or bitterness of the victory by default has faded.
No time to play Deaf
The plight of the polyphonic ballot is one that requires objective analysis. It goes beyond the interest of any party be it PN, MLP or a third party. Right now the noises we are hearing do not bode well. MLP is lost in the land of the wounded and still has to go through the very important process of choosing a new leader. AD were not gracious in defeat. Their knee-jerk reactions to the people’s decision do not do justice to the work the party had achieved before embarking on a suicidal electoral campaign (and here I criticise the strategy and not the AD’s long-standing policies which seem to form part of the backbone of the environmental policy of the party that refused for so long any form of post-electoral agreement with AD).
The biggest danger lies within the halls of Dar Centrali and its media branches. Already on e-day plus one we heard talk of small parties being irritants in the process. Already we have the invitation to small parties to dismantle and play the pressure group game and leave the power-mongering to the bigger parties. Now we have media.link farcically highlighting every failed coalition in the world (without examining the context) as though it proves anything about the success or otherwise of coalitions. The Nationalist campaign managed to neutralise the third alternative by morphing it into a part of the greater evil. Now that the campaign is over, rather than examining the question of representation and rather than face the possibility that this electorate is mature enough to make its own choices, we have an extended campaign to drown the possible alternatives.
This is a time for rebuilding. I am extremely content that the new Cabinet shows signs of this change. A smaller, compact cabinet with many young faces seems projected to manage this country well over the next five years. On a personal note I am happiest for my Gozitan friend Chris Said who will now be investing his energies for the whole island and will hopefully bring his magical touch to the services of the nation. I worked with Chris for a few years in MZPN and can only say that even at that early stage it was clear that he has much to give if given the right space to work. I am very curious to see how this Information and Public Dialogue secretariat will work out.
Back to the change. The current government has been elected with a relative majority. It is important to be clear that I do not find this in any way undemocratic. We have a constitutional provision that provides for this situation. It is a provision made by Parliament in order to ensure governance and I respect that. It does not mean however that the fact that this government enjoys the direct support of less than 50% of the voting electorate can be easily dismissed. Rather, it should be at the forefront of all considerations. Neither of the two big parties enjoys the support of half the country any longer. Factor in the fact that only 93% of the electorate actually voted plus the votes that went to third parties and you start to get an idea of the building of a critical mass.
That critical mass could have been much bigger without the Alfred Sant factor in last election’s equation. How we deal with this critical mass is important. Our parties in parliament have got used to tampering with the constitution to suit their needs of representation. Each revision has fortified their position within parliament to the point that we now have a system that translates 1,500 extra votes into 4 seats. True those extra 4 seats are there to ensure that the party garnering more votes ends up governing the country.
What is also true is that with each progressive amendment the Big Two have chosen not to introduce any kind of threshold for representation of third parties. Various electoral methods have been considered – D’Hondt seems to trump them all. But they have been stuck at the table of consideration. As time goes by and as elections become less of a one-issue campaign (always hoping no new Alfred Sant factor turns up) the risk of more and more votes being wasted because of the lack of a threshold becomes a tangible reality.
Naysayers, will tell you that the 5% national threshold has never been reached. They will say that AD’s 23,000 votes in the EP election were a fluke. The arguments in favour of the threshold include the fact that given the threshold more people would feel it is useful to vote for a third party. In the end, with the threshold in place you have two possibilities: either the threshold is reached and voters are not disenfranchised or no threshold is reached and no harm is done in any case. After all this provision for compensation of seats when there is a relative majority could have sat quietly in the constitution for years had not the electorate voted this way this time.
The appeal here is that the discussion can only benefit all parties in a mature democracy. It must bear in mind governance and stability but not to the detriment of fair representation. 5% is a high enough threshold that should incentivise small parties to get their act together. There is now space for this discussion in order to have the “New Beginning” where “Everything is Possible”. It is time for an inclusive parliament because in the words of Rafael Caldera “the ideal democratic palace is made up of all the people”.
Otherwise we will have to bear in mind Plato’s warning: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber”.