Saturday 24 August 2019

Remove partisan politics from local councils, and more people will vote

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When the PN Government first introduced the idea of local councils in 1993, the Labour Party, then in Opposition and led by Alfred Sant, strongly disagreed with having them being contested by candidates from political parties. In fact, many might not remember that in that first round of elections, the PL did not even field any candidates and those who were left-wing simply ran as independents.   It was only in 1998, when Sant’s short-lived administration was removed from power, that the Labour Party changed its mind, and since then the local councils have been used as a kind of barometer to test how the Government in office is doing.  Mercifully, they are not being held in a staggered fashion every three years any more which meant we were always in election mode.  On the other hand, since this time round they were held nation-wide, the results are being paraded by diehards to prove just how much support the Labour Party has.

Did we really need local council elections to know this? It has been pretty obvious really from the last two general elections and the latest MEP elections. However, if I were the PL I would hold off from all the crowing that ‘yet another locality has turned red’. If the Labour party stops congratulating itself long enough to look closely at the figures, a different story emerges. Let me just break it down from the data provided by the Electoral Commission at the time of writing on Friday afternoon when one third of the localities had still not been counted:

Registered Voters – 433,596

Votes Cast  43.8% -189,943

Valid Votes 94.4% – 179,287

Invalid Votes 5.6% – 10,656

From the turnout quoted above, it is clear that the interest in local councils has definitely waned over the years and this time round, many used the occasion to register their protest against PN leader Adrian Delia by not voting. With the vote counting completed for 44 out of 67 localities, the tally was 60% for PL and 37% for the PN with independents and third parties making up the remaining 3%.  So it really such a victory when you are running against a decimated, divided party which has spurned its own leader?  It is not just PN supporters who failed to turn up at the polling stations though. When you have so many who shunned the local council elections in protest (both against the PN leadership and against the dismal failure of many councils to deliver, in general) then I cannot understand what there is to celebrate, except for those who can only think in terms of “our party won”.  Big deal and, frankly, who cares on a local government level?

I have heard so many downright silly stories about what goes on in local councils: the pettiness of not wanting to work with fellow councillors because it is PN-led or PL-led  to make one party or the other “look bad”.  The squabbling and attempts at one-upmanship is so irritating that I cannot handle it. Instead of concentrating on improving the area, too many spend their time putting spokes in each other’s wheels as the town or village goes to the dogs. How many times have we heard bout the mismanagement of funds or much-needed projects and decisions being bogged down in bureaucracy and endless meetings? When it comes to the real issues, namely, rubbish collection. potholes, noise pollution, dangerous construction sites, air pollution  and neighbourhood security – all I see is finger-pointing and a blame culture. The Central Government meanwhile seems intent on bringing the councils to their knees by slashing their budgets and withdrawing their powers, which makes me wonder why it still bothers with the concept of councils in the first place. Meanwhile the residents  are caught in the middle, as they are passed from pillar to post when they complain about something and are not being served at all by those who were elected to manage the needs and requirements of the locality. 

Of course not all local councils have been a disaster; some have actually done what they set out to do, especially in the traditional villages. Others have disintegrated into one big mess, not necessarily through any fault of their own but because the area they cover is too sprawling, too unmanageable, too populated and too diverse, requiring different needs and a different approach.   

Last weekend when I was walking with my mother along Triq it-Turisti (which is now started to sound like an ironic name), to take her to her polling station in Bugibba it seemed symbolic that the whole street had been quickly and badly patched up and was strewn with litter and plastic barriers which had been flung every which way by the wind.  Parts of the street had been asphalted, other parts were still full of potholes. You have to choose between risking a twisted ankle on the uneven pavements or walking on the road and being hit by a passing car.  The road to vote was literally filled with badly-executed intentions and looked like a rubbish dump.   Is this what people are expected to vote for when voting for their local councils?  If (as some believe) the central Government was trying to make this PN-led council look bad by not giving it enough funds or resources, the only thing it succeeded in doing was to infuriate the residents who have been forced to live in a tip.  If on the other hand (as others believe) the PN council was not doing its job to make the Government look bad, then really what was the point of running for office in the first place? 

With all this political bickering which interferes with the actual work which needs to be done, is it any wonder that only 32.2% registered in this locality even bothered to vote? 

Predictably, the St Paul’s Bay council has now been won by the Labour party, so does that mean the area which it covers, sprawling from Xemxija to Qawra is going to magically become pristine now and everything will function like clockwork?  I wait with bated breath but forgive me if I have my doubts, especially since these councils located in seaside resorts are unable to cater for a population which has exploded and has such diverse needs.  A balance needs to be struck between tourists, people living here for the short term and full-time residents whether foreign or local, but the Government seems to think that areas such as St Paul’s Bay and Sliema can be managed in the same way as, for example, Lija. News flash – they cannot and it is absurd to think that they can. 

All I know is that politics should have been left out of local government entirely and those running should all be civic-minded independent candidates who just love their town and village and want to improve their community.   After all, it is not impossible to be elected as an Independent – Steve Zammit Lupi did it in the traditional village of Zebbug and two people did it in the tiny village of Gharb, Gozo. I especially love the fact that they ran under the banner L-Gharb L-ewwel – “Gharb comes first”, which to me encapsulates what the councils should be about. Not about political affiliation but about love for one’s town or village. 

As I watched the celebrations as the Labour Party clinched yet another former PN stronghold, the only thing I could think of is that the raison d’etre of local councils was certainly never meant to be like this. 

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