Saturday 04 February 2023

This skewed electoral system just has to change

This column first appeared on Malta Today

As the dust settles down on the general election, we have learned more about who has “made it” and who was left behind. When faced by certain names on the ballot sheet, it is now apparent that the electorate (contrary to what some might think) knew exactly what it was doing.

Unfortunately, however, some former MPs whom people clearly did not want to be re-elected (as can be evidenced by their first count votes), will be in Parliament anyway. This continues to happen because of that dubious system called casual elections, which is a misnomer if there ever was one. There is nothing ‘casual’ about them; they are in fact, very deliberate.

The way it works with the Labour Party is that when a candidate contests and is elected on two districts, the party’s National Executive decides which seat they should give up. This is already a very questionable practice because, of course, there are vested interests and manoeuvres in deciding why a seat in one district should be vacated rather than another. The remaining candidates on the vacated district are then given a chance to submit their nomination for the available seat. So we had, for example, Ian Borg giving up his seat on the 6th district which meant that, surprise, surprise, Rosianne Cutajar “inherited” enough of his votes through the single transferable vote (STV) procedure and once again has her comfortable seat back in Parliament. Now how is that reflecting the voice of the people when her poor showing at the polls was loudly telling her that discerning voters wanted her out? These things keep happening because powerful figures such as Ian Borg are allowed to contest two districts so that flailing candidates can be pulled through the system as a result of their surplus of votes. It may be great for their ego but is doing nothing for our democracy.

The decision for Michael Falzon and Clifton Grima to both give up their seat on the 9th District (rather than one of them giving up their seat on the 10th district) also smacked of unfairness – because it meant that 10th district candidates were not given a chance to contest the casual elections. As a result, they will never know if they had a chance to make it or not.

The tone of dejection was palpable and expressed by candidates themselves, such as Felix Busuttil: “I am slightly disappointed that I did not have the chance to submit my nomination on the 10th district …but I will accept the Party’s decision.”

In the PN, things are done slightly more democratically, and the decision of which seat to relinquish is based on the least number of votes on the first count as a percentage of the district quota. But even here there were some inexplicable decisions. On Thursday, PN candidate Janice Chetcuti announced she would not be throwing her hat into the ring for the casual elections. Her post read as follows:
“In my loyalty towards the Nationalist party, and all the constituents who form part of the third district, and after much reflection, I have decided not to contest the casual elections so that as a Party we can maximum the use of the vote on this district as much as possible and in this way we can elect three MPs. I will be elected through the gender quota mechanism (with the largest number of votes) and therefore I will leave another place free for the casual elections.”

Erm, excuse me? What kind of pretzel-twisting is this of our electoral system? So she has “decided” to step aside, so that someone else can contest the casual election because she knows she is getting a seat anyway. Why not contest on her own steam? When I looked at her votes on the last count, she would definitely have made it whereas the candidate who is contesting the district now was lagging considerably behind her. As someone who was never really in favour of the gender corrective mechanism, this has simply added another reason to why I think it is not the right way to get more women involved in the political sphere. It is just another way in which our already flawed electoral system is ripe for abuse by those who are pulling the strings.

Do we want more women in Parliament? Yes, but not like this

Four women were elected to Parliament immediately, with Miriam Dalli being elected on two districts. After the Labour Party’s casual elections, we now have another four women MPs. On Tuesday the PN will hold their casual elections, with seven seats up for grabs, so it remains to be seen how many more women will be elected in that way.

What we do know is that, once the casual elections have been concluded, the gender corrective mechanism will be kickstarted and the likelihood is that 12 more women will automatically get a seat in Parliament (6 for the PL and 6 for the PN). This will be irrespective of how few votes they got, as there are places to be filled so they will them.
In a column I wrote in 2019, I had this to say about quotas:

“What woman wants to feel that she has become an MP or a local councillor not because she was elected through a popular vote, but because there was a reserved empty seat which needed to be filled by a woman, and she just happened to be next in line? It almost feels like ‘cheating’, for want of a better word; as if you didn’t quite get that seat through merit but simply because it was left empty, so what the heck, you might as well take it.”

Now that we have the very real prospect of 12 parliamentary seats which are going to be filled by women (based on their gender but not based on votes earned), I feel more strongly about this than ever. It really is making a mockery of the whole concept of democracy when seats are being handed out like jellybeans. And here I always thought elections are supposed to reflect the will of the electorate.

It is also another slap in the face for small parties, because it only applies to the two major parties who, please note, put aside their acrimony for a change and wholeheartedly agreed on this mechanism because it suited them perfectly. (In fact, independent candidate Arnold Cassola is rightly challenging this law in Court because it discriminates against women candidates from third parties.)

But let us start at the beginning. Out of 178 candidates running on behalf of all the parties, there were only 42 women candidates, which is still on the low side. This is despite the fact that the Labour Party initiated the LEAD programme to encourage more women to step into politics. So to start with, the percentage of those contesting was already too low for any meaningful change. One of the reasons for this is that no government (or any female MP or Minister for that matter) has ever pushed through real electoral reform to make our parliament a family friendly one. Only when that happens can we hope to see more accomplished women decide to assume the role of politician to add on to their other existing roles where they are juggling a million things at once.

I also feel that political parties are focusing too much on attracting the young, single female as potential candidates. There is nothing wrong with bringing fresh faces on board, but why should this be at the expense of discarding life experience, a solid work and organisational background and maturity, which are so invaluable in politics? The silent message being sent is that anyone over 40 (let alone 50) is a has-been, so don’t even bother trying.

During the short campaign I also saw repeated calls for “women to vote for women” but I’m afraid this kind of appeal does not work, for several reasons. First of all it depends if there are actually women running in your district, and if they are, whether you believe in them and agree with their stand on various issues. How many of the female candidates actually made their voice heard about issues which are important to women? Do they even know what Malta’s women really care about and what problems they wish to see solved in this country? The party machine is often blamed for not pushing their women candidates more, but nothing was stopping these women from using the time honoured method of getting out there and introducing themselves to people face to face. Social media ads are all well and good but nothing beats the personal touch.

Having a seat in Parliament is not a joyride, unless one simply intends to sit there as a backbencher and warm the seat. It requires years of experience and a level of competence, no matter your gender. Sadly, by adding 12 women in this way I do not see it as progress for feminism at all. I simply see it as an insult to those who got there because they earned it over many years though sheer hard work and being active in politics their whole life. The signal this gives is that whether a candidate obtained 3000 votes or 300 votes, it no longer matters because they will both get a seat at the table anyway.

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