Thursday 01 June 2023

Are we serious about getting rid of cronyism?

This article first appeared on Malta Today

Observers are always amazed at our consistent high voter turnout, one election after another. Let’s face it, when in 2017, 92.7% was described as “the lowest voter turnout since 1966”, that is when you realise what a gulf there is between us and other countries.

Compare that to the US (55.7% in 2016), the UK (65.4% in 2016) and the lowest of them all, Switzerland (39% in 2015). Italy, which went to the polls on Sunday, saw a 70.6% turnout in 2013. Even those who rate quite high (Belgium 87.2% in 2014) and Sweden (82.6% in 2014), are still trailing quite a few percentage points behind us.

Now, there can be quite a few reasons and factors to explain why people bother to vote or not. For example, according to an op-ed article on the website people2power, which compared voter turnout in Switzerland to the US,”This brings up an almost cyclical connection between voter happiness and apathy. The happier the citizens, the lower the turnout. As happiness starts to lower, the trend shows that more people vote, until the happiness hits an extreme low, at which point voter apathy increases. In a typical year, the Swiss are called to an official vote on a quarterly basis. In addition, citizen initiatives and referendums occur faster and more frequently than in the US.”

Certainly, if you feel that whether or not you vote it won’t make one iota of difference, it can dissuade many from even bothering to register to vote, let alone to actually make the effort to go to their local polling station.

When it comes to Malta, I am pretty sure that the reason that, no matter how much we may complain about not liking either party or not having any real alternatives to choose from, the turnout continues to be high, is because there is so much to be lost (or gained) at a personal level. Put plainly, election after election, there are many who have obtained their positions, whether of trust, or otherwise, purely because of political party allegiance. There have always been those who have canvassed hard for their candidate, who have stuck their neck out by doing public endorsements, or perhaps even more subtly, but just as importantly, who have worked behind-the-scenes organizing events and meetings to put their candidate in touch with potential voters who may be swayed to give him their number one vote.

With so many candidates from the same party pitted against one another in each electoral district, the scramble for votes becomes a frenzy of promises to voters, who eye their targets with practiced, studied finesse, as they weigh their chances of who will clinch the seat, and be in a position to actually come through with what has been promised. Making it to Parliament will be a start, but being appointed as a Parliamentary Secretary or better yet, a Minister, is even better. Those shouts of delirium at the counting hall (and the erstwhile banging on the perspex, a quaint, colourful practice which, with electronic vote-counting, will soon be a thing of the past) are not just because the Maltese love when the ‘horse’ they are backing has won. Like children whose eye shine with anticipation at the visions of sugarplums and gifts on Christmas Eve, the supporters of the respective candidates often look like they are almost going to burst at the thought of what juicy plum positions lie ahead (if the candidate keeps his promises that is).

And what candidate, in his right mind, would not? If you have based your whole campaign promising everything wildly to all those who are working hard to get you elected, you would be pretty nuts to suddenly renege on your promises. You would probably also have to emigrate.

But where did all this start? Whoever you speak to will tell you, with a sigh of resignation and an air of defeatism, that it has always been like this, precisely because of the way the country is divided into districts, and our electoral system which is based on proportional representation and the single transferable vote, which we adopted from the British. Of course, with any change in Government, it is expected that there comes a clean sweep in certain positions which require loyalty to the administration of the day. However, inevitably, with depressing regularity, we keep seeing appointments and roles handed out to unsuitable, unqualified people which are so in your face one cannot help but exclaim in disgust.

Did the Nationalists do it too? Yes, of course they did, even though there are some who are pretending to be purer than the driven snow at the moment who think we must be suffering from collective amnesia. But that is precisely the point isn’t it? They did it, so the Labour party has done it, and so on and so forth. If half of the country was shut out from lucrative appointments, consultancies, tenders, contracts, direct orders and what have you for many long years, purely because of their political beliefs, it stands to reason (some will argue) that now “it is our turn”.

In fact, as we know, the only man who tried to put a stop to this practice was Alfred Sant when he became Prime Minister, and the result was almost near mutiny by members of his own party. “Is he ******* crazy?” was basically the most common reaction as Labour supporters demanded to be “given” what they felt was their due. As I recall no one from the Opposition really backed his attempt at breaking the mould either, or offered their bi-partisan support to finally put a stop to this kind of thing, as some were too busy trying to ridicule the fact that he wore a wig.

Meanwhile, those who are not ready to get nice and cosy with any party, or to kiss any behinds in order to get ahead, are always left out in the cold, and will never have a chance to be appointed based purely on merit.

So here we are once again, full circle. The winner takes all, otherwise what is the point? That is, in a nutshell how many view politics. It is taken so much for granted that you are looked at almost oddly if you suggest otherwise. From important family connections, to nepotism, to political patronage and just plain cronyism, that is how the game is played, and that is why so many pour their heart and soul into backing certain candidates and one party over another (depending on who has the most chance of winning that particular election), forgetting everything in the heat and passion of making sure their side wins.

Much too much is always at stake, and none of it has anything to do with ensuring that the best people are placed in the right posts for the good of the country.

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