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Power to the people

The politics of Malta take shape on the small scale of a city state. The number of eligible voters at the last general election was just over 314,634, of which 290,799 cast their vote. By any world standard, this represents a high degree of participation by the electorate.

What proportion of the electorate was mobilised by the political party machines and how many voters went to the polling booths on their own steam, propelled by their own personal convictions? How many 'traded' their votes for favours, received, promised or anticipated, from the part-time politicians, active in their respective constituencies? How many floating voters changed sides and swung the pendulum and why?

Malta's baroque politics were never designed to yield these answers. In the early days of self-government, politics were vitiated by polarisation at many levels, ranging from village to band club rivalry. The cultural significance of the Church was overbearing. Village clientelism by the local doctor or lawyer was widespread.

The political parties came into their own relatively recently, first by constructing elaborate party machinery, supported by a constellation of village clubs, and later by setting up media networks.

This happened in the context of wider social change. The spread of education, the extension of the franchise, the arrival of radio and television, the impact of pluralism - all this gave power to the elbow of the average elector, who was prepared to navigate by the star of his or her own convictions. The floating vote became a factor to be reckoned with, and the party political machines had to trim their sails and consider the floating voter in their respective equations.

From that point onwards, it became necessary for the political parties to assess the mood of the electorate and its reaction to change. The respective party machines now conduct opinion polls - but they treat their findings as if they were state secrets and release for public consumption only what suits them.

In this scenario, that segment of the Maltese electorate that is not so well informed is left to its own devices and is easy prey to manipulation. It needs enlightenment.

Maltese democracy is not yet equipped to know from independent sources how the mood of the electorate is influenced by developments, by its reaction to political zig-zags, by the media, and so on.

Does this suit the political parties that exploit their secret knowledge in the pursuit of power? Would the more emancipated segment of the electorate swing one way or the other if it were enlightened by opinion poll findings on a regular basis?

I would not presume to answer with any authority any of these questions. But there are thousands of voters who would appreciate at least indicative replies.

Malta has yet to reach a stage when independent opinion polls start to be commissioned, possibly by the media or by major social institutions, and conceivably also by public-spirited non-government organisations.

Such published findings would not be tainted by political money and would shed light on the status of the various political parties in the public eye.

It would seem that the publication of independent, professional opinion surveys on carefully thought-out questions, highlighting the aspirations of an upwardly-mobile generation, or the reaction of vital segments of the electorate across the country, or in key constituencies, could have an impact on party policies or even on the national electoral outlook.

One aspect that deserves research and deeper understanding is the attitude and perceptions of new floating voters, who have the potential to swing the electoral pendulum on a range of key issues

What proportion of this vote are electors acting out of genuine and enlightened self-interest? How many voters crawl out of the woodwork to blackmail candidates with their vote? How many are one-time dissidents, reacting against their party on specific issues?

Should such issues be considered as shoals to be avoided by political parties that conduct their own surveys, or would it serve democracy better if the electorate were to be independently enlightened before choosing its options?

One of the goals of democracy is to give citizens a sense of control and efficiency, to resolve political confrontation in a non-violent manner, and to facilitate the solution of ever-changing and emerging problems faced by societies.

Understanding how democracies work best, and comprehending how potential voters and individuals function within democracies is tall order. It must be faced.

Is it too much to expect Maltese voters to be able to exercise their future electoral options with all the cards on the table?

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