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Labour and electoral reform

Labour's decision not to attend the House committee discussing the strenghtening of our democracy has disappointed many like myself who were eagerly waiting to contribute to the debate by making proposals on electoral reform.

For most people, electoral reforms are conducted by parties to ensure fairness in the system in order to guarantee governability to the party winning the majority of votes. That is so. But there are other electoral issues and which are in desperate need of reform. One such matter is the fairness of the system in electing individual candidates.

In his Talking Point (May 24), Lino Spiteri raised a number of valid points regarding the issue of proportionality and which still require deliberation. The last constitutional amendments to which Mr Spiteri made reference, have addressed some of the proportionality concerns, failed to introduce a national threshold and brought about new electoral complications when Gozo was recognised as a region. Nevertheless, substantial enhancement to our electoral system has been made since the perversion in the system was first addressed prior to the 1987 general election.

It may now be the right time for parties to discuss ways to improve the system vis-a-vis individual candidates. Our system, although hailed as one of the best electoral systems, is not perfect. There are numerous features that makes the system imperfect, to say the least. The ballot structure is one of them.

As we have all witnessed in the last MEP election, the way the ballot paper is designed affects the way voters allocate their preferences. Voters tend to allocate top preferences in a judicious manner and then simply allocate lower preferences in the order names appear on the ballot. Although this bias does not affect the parties' vote tally it may determine the fate of individual candidates. Over the years, many candidates from both sides of the house failed to get elected because of this bias. This happens in every Maltese election, not just the general election. In the House committee there might have been proposals to eliminate this bias.

Another issue which directly affects individual candidates are dual candidacies. Casual elections, mainly triggered by dual candidacies, present all sorts of anomalies. If a candidate does well in a general election, s/he is generally penalised at the casual election stage. Ballot paper position may again influence the outcome of casual elections. In short, a number of casual elections are not electing the "correct candidate".

It is therefore reasonable to ask: Why do candidates stand in two districts simultaneouly? MPs from both sides whom I had the privelege to interview while doing my research mention a number of reasons. The vast majority of MPs said that the changes of the district boundaries generally split their electoral base and normally force them to contest on two districts. Most of them, even those who were successful on both districts, prefer to contest on a single district. This is yet another issue which the House committee might have been asked to discuss.

The low representation of Maltese women in Parliament has been discussed extensively. The House committee needs to at least discuss ways how to incentive more women to participate in elections. There is an almost linear relationship between the number of women contesting elections and the number of successful women. There may be ways to increase women's representation without the introduction of formal quotas. The House committee may be interested to listen to suggestions.

Electoral reform is best discussed in the middle of a legislature not on the eve of an election. We are now at the right time to discuss these issues without pressure.

The Labour Party should reconsider its decision to move away from the discussion table. The issues I mentioned affect Labour's candidates as much as they affect other parties' candidates. There are more issues to be raised and many more individuals who, like myself, wish to participate in the debate. Let us have a mature and productive discussion for the benefit of the country.

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