Sunday 15 September 2019

Interpreting some of the election numbers

This article was first published in Malta Today

101,434  – that is the number of voters who were registered to vote in the MEP elections but chose not to. Some did not collect their votes because they could not be bothered, while others (mostly foreign nationals) because there was a dearth of properly-communicated information and they did not realise that if they were not at home when the police came to deliver their voting document, then they had to collect it themselves.  In addition, for the local councils, I also learned that many candidates only distributed flyers in Maltese. 

I think it is about time the authorities decide exactly what their position is vis-a-vis EU nationals – do they want them to fully participate in Maltese society, which includes elections, or do they only want them to pay taxes and national security contributions, while being determined to make everything about living here an uphill struggle for them, so that they will ultimately leave (to be replaced by a fresh batch)? 

The above-quoted number also included those who did have their document but decided not to exercise their right to vote. Now, some people see this as an appalling dereliction of one’s duty, pointing to how many people in the world are denied this basic right which we take for granted.  But there could be a slew of valid reasons for refusing to vote. Yes, in some cases it might be just sheer apathy, but in other cases, it is simply because one is not yet politically engaged, which is often the case with younger people.  Unless one is raised in a highly charged, diehard household, it is very hard to understand the concept of why politics is important to your life in your teenage years – you would rather be out partying with your friends instead. In fact, although the numbers have not yet been officially analysed, I would not be that surprised to learn that the much-touted 16-year-old demographic which was given the vote for the first time, just didn’t bother. 

It is not only teenagers who might feel disenfranchised, of course. Many adults feel the same way, unable to feel a connection with any political party or candidate for a plethora of reasons.  Why should people be badgered into ticking their ballot paper blindly, voting just for the sake of voting, if they do not really believe in anyone?  Finally – and this is probably the most significant group – there are those who want to pointedly register their protest against the status quo by deliberately not voting.  Since the data gathering capabilities of the political parties is so finely-tuned, the party bigwigs will usually know who did not vote, ensuring that the non-voter is hammering their point home even further: “don’t just assume I will vote for your party no matter what”. 

I don’t particularly agree with the statement that if you do not vote, from now on, you have no right to complain, because that is thoroughly trivialising (and misunderstanding) the matter. First of all, it is a free country and everyone can do what they like with their vote, including flushing it down the toilet, if they wish.  More importantly, the fact that people feel so strongly about not being listened to, that the only way they can make their voices heard is by withdrawing themselves completely from the democratic process, should serve as a resounding alarm bell for politicians.   

As Saturday unfolded, it quickly became apparent that there was going to be a lower turnout than usual, with the most significant drop in numbers coming from PN-leaning districts. While these were MEP and local council elections it is clear that many saw an opportunity to “send a message”, and the message which was sent was a firm refusal to support the current PN leadership.  

The blunt truth is that Adrian Delia was made unelectable in 2017; his chances at being accepted by all PN supporters were virtually poisoned and that is when the party spilt. A house divided cannot stand. The party has wasted two years and not made one inch of progress; on the contrary, the split has become even more entrenched, and the defeat has been more humiliating. Frankly, those who opposed Delia from the get go would have been better off forming their own new party because they might have had a chance of winning more support over the last two years in order to offer a viable alternative.  Instead the PN has been nuked, a shell of its former self, barely hanging on, with a large bulk of supporters who refused to endorse any of “Delia’s people” who ran for the MEP elections, but who pointedly voted Metsola and Casa (from the Simon Busuttil faction) back in.  

Even before the votes for the local council started being counted, it had already been reported that “On a national basis, over 10% of those who voted in the MEP election did not bother to cast their vote in the local council election.”  But it was not just PN voters who were sending a message. Significantly, there was also a huge 49 point drop in Pembroke, a Labour-led council, where the refusal to vote is not being interpreted as a vote against the council per se, but against the central Government which has allowed the monstrous DB project to go through.

This low turnout as a form of protest at this particular time in Malta is, for me, a huge, important step in citizen activism  People are made to feel so helpless on a daily basis, and in most cases they are – so the sheer gall of candidates shoving a couple of glossy leaflets through their door, and lurking at them like Big Brother from billboards, in the assumption that they will vote for them anyway, was really the last straw.  One’s vote is the only bargaining chip left in a country where institutions such as the Planning Authority and the Building Regulations Office, which are meant to protect our rights, have proven to be a sham.  

Of those who did vote, another crucial number also emerges: There were 9,810 (3.6%) invalid (spoiled) votes, which represents an increase from 2014 (2.2%). If the two big parties really want to know what people think, they should be reading the scrawled messages which were used to deface those votes. 

Finally there is the figure of 8238 – the first count votes obtained by extreme Far-right candidate Norman Lowell in the name of his party Imperium Europa. By the time he was eliminated in the 35th count, this figure went up to 9693 making IE the third largest party we have at the moment.  Many people announced that they would unfriend or block anyone who voted for Lowell, but that will not make this figure go away.  Whether it was a protest vote or whether he has a genuine following, the fact that he got so many votes by those who agree with his views has to be acknowledged. The onus is on the PL and the PN on how to handle this growing public sentiment. 

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