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'Electoral amendments aim at better turnout for elections'

Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg told Parliament on Wednesday that the proposed amendments to the General Elections Act, providing that eligible persons could vote before the official polling day, were another step forward to make it easier for more people to turn out for elections.

Piloting the amendments, Dr Borg said the Bill would affect not only the general elections but also the elections for the European Parliament and the local council elections. The government was ready to consider the same procedure for consultative and abrogative referenda, but this would be discussed at committee stage.

Malta had a residence requirement and only those who spent six of the last 18 months in Malta before the election could vote. This meant that eligible voters would have to come to Malta.

Likewise, those residing in Malta but who had to go abroad could not vote. But through these amendments, these would now be able to vote.

Dr Borg recalled seeing patients on stretchers being carried into polling booths because these could not vote in hospitals or old peoples' homes. The only exceptions were St Vincent de Paul Residence inmates. Although he admired these patients for their sense of civic duty, he said he would not like to continue to witness such scenes.

The only people permitted to vote before the official polling day were assistant electoral commissioners who could vote on Friday. Previously, these also used to vote on the same day but cast their vote in mixed polling boxes.

The minister said the amendments allowed people who declare they would be away on polling day to make a sworn declaration and vote on the Saturday before polling day.

This meant that in the coming elections for the European Parliament, those who would not be in Malta on June 6 could vote on May 31 between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Dr Borg quoted Labour deputy leader Anġlu Farrugia saying this was sheer arrogance on the part of the government. The proposal emanated from a request by the Malta Olympic Committee because athletes at the Small Nations Games would be in Cyprus on polling day. The government felt that such a proposal should be extended to all and not only to these athletes.

The principal thrust of the amendments was to cater for those who lived in Malta and who would not be in Malta for any reason whatsoever on polling day. It would also apply to eligible voters who were overseas.

Dr Borg said there was a fixation that the Partit Laburista had lost the last general election by the 1,500 votes of those who had come from abroad.

The argument was whether these people, whose names appeared in the electoral register, had a right to vote as long as they spent six months of the last 18 months in Malta.

There was a proposal before the Select Committee for people overseas to vote in embassies. So, what was the fuss all about? he asked.

The minister said that the sworn declaration could be made until noon of the Friday immediately preceding the day established for voting.

Concluding, Dr Borg said he hoped that the opposition would agree with the amendments, but the government was ready to discuss any other suggestion. It was important that the highest number of Maltese should be able to exercise their right to vote. The Bill was urgent because it was desirable that the legislation be in place by the end of the month.

Opposition leader Joseph Muscat said the government's amendments would only be acceptable if they were part of a wider package. He accused the government of arrogance and strongly objected to the way the government had moved the amendments. He said these should have first been discussed in the Select Committee on Democratic Change, along with other issues such as flight arrangements should be carried out by the Electoral Commission; ID cards should be renewed; agreement should be reached on the allocation of the sixth seat in the European Parliament; and the way of deciding voting rights should be changed. The voting process at old people's homes should be better supervised, with the Electoral Commission deciding on staff to be on duty on voting day.

Dr Muscat was carried in full in yesterday's edition.

Nationalist MP Beppe Fenech Adami said the amendments would regulate the electoral process, minimise abuse and give eligible voters every facility to vote.

He belied Labour's claims that its supporters encountered difficulties in booking Air Malta flights to come over to vote. He claimed they did not come because the party was overconfident and did not chase them. If what the PL claimed was true, then the proposed amendments made even more sense.

The way Opposition leader Joseph Muscat spoke against the proposed amendments made it apparent that he did not understand today's realities. Many of those who came to vote were people studying or working abroad who could not afford to take a whole week off.

Dr Muscat tried to give the impression that the Select Committee was not functioning. He said Labour MP Michael Falzon and himself had been nominated to go through amendments to the electoral law. He had passed on the government's proposals, but received no feedback from the PL. He had therefore assumed that they had been shelved.

The ball was in the opposition's court.

Dr Muscat had accused the government of arrogance for trying to facilitate the voting process for eligible voters. The arrogance, he said, came from Dr Muscat himself, who had spent over an hour saying that it should not be made easier for those who lived abroad, to exercise their right.

Dr Muscat proposed a solution only for athletes participating in the Small Nations Games, but not for those abroad because of reasons of health, business or studies. The PL proposal of sending a ballot box to Cyprus lacked reasoned thinking.

Dr Fenech Adami asked whether Dr Muscat had forgotten what used to go on at St Vincent de Paul on polling day during the seventies. He invited Dr Muscat, with the monitoring system available, to verify how both PL and PN got their fair share of votes from there. The system adopted for St Vincent de Paul should also be introduced in hospitals and other old people's homes.

While Dr Muscat argued that it was not ideal to have different voting days, he said electoral commissioners and St Vincent de Paul inmates should vote earlier.

DrMuscat was proposing that only those paying taxes should be eligible to vote. This as going back to feudal times as there were many who did not pay taxes.

In Professor Arnold Cassola's case, he said, the court had established once and for all what constituted residency.

Turning to Dr Muscat's attack on Air Malta chairman Lawrence Zammit, Dr Fenech Adami said the situation had been the same when Louis Grech, the Labour MEP, had been chairman.

It was surprising how Dr Muscat, who liked to call himself progressive, was all out against these amendments. It was ironic that as an MEP just months ago, he had voted in favour of refugees being given the right to vote.

Those people studying and working abroad were not all Nationalist supporters but rather people who had availed themselves of the opportunities created by EU membership.

He could not understand why Labour were against the fact that those who wanted to vote early must take a sworn declaration until noon of the eve of the polling day. It defeated the purpose if these had to be in Malta earlier in the week.

Concluding, Dr Fenech Adami said this was the difference between two parties: while the PL was not in favour of widening the possibility of eligible voters to exercise their rights, the PN did its utmost to facilitate the process.

Franco Debono (PL) said that despite Dr Muscat's speech, it was not clear how the opposition would vote one these amendments. He accused Labour of adopting a stubborn approach.

The government was not arrogant but was only being sensitive.

The amendments were nothing but a mechanism to help those eligible to vote exercise their right and a respect towards democracy.

Turning to the sworn declaration, Dr Debono asked what would a person gain if he said he would be abroad on polling day, yet remain in Malta. Perjury was punishable by law.

With regards to ineligible voters appearing in the electoral system, redress could be sought through the courts.

Dr Debono said that political parties should improve the level of trust between them and become closer to each other in order to have a more democratic system.

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo said that once again, Dr Muscat had shown that Malta had a 'No' opposition. The amendments aimed to facilitate voting and not on introducing a new tax.

The opposition's stance showed that it had no trust in itself. The unusual behaviour of Dr Muscat showed the opposition seemed to be angry at the situation.

It was not true that the government was creating two classes of citizen; it was just showing maturity in giving every opportunity to eligible voters to exercise their rights.

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