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Fault lines on the way to the polls

Whenever the next general election is held, even if a rejuve­­-nat­ed Prime Minister drags it out to the last allowable date, it is now clear it will take place along two fault lines. Both have existed for a long time. Both were deliberately left there by the political lass. They are the very imperfect electoral system, with a propensity to yield adjusted one-seat majorities, and the financing of political parties and individual candidates.

Proper updated regulation of the financing of politics should introduce complete transparency. But it is nowhere in sight
- Lino Spiteri

The electoral system has long outlived the merit of ensuring that, in a two-party House of Representatives, whichever party gets an absolute or a relative majority will govern. The adjustment mechanism has proven to be not enough.

Examples: in 1996 it gave the Labour Party a one-seat majority when the number of votes it garnered for a very substantial absolute majority should have translated into a three-seatmargin for Alfred Sant.

In 2008 the adjustment mechanism gave the Nationalist Party and Lawrence Gonzi a one-seat plus when their relative majority barely equated to a third of an average quota of votes.

The system remains self-evidently flawed. It is in the interest of any political party that believes in itself to insist on amendments that would ensure the strictest possible proportionality between the number of votes gained and the seats won.

The parties made a half-hearted attempt to agree on suitable amendments.

They should not have been hard to identify, basing on the supremacy of the one-person-one-vote principle, rather than giving the vote the extra weighting implicit in the single-transferable-vote model.

Nevertheless the parties managed to reach final disagreement, rather than continue with honest efforts to reach consensus on an equitable solution.

That leaves the possibility that in the next election the adjustment mechanism will come into play again, in regard of which­ever party. That possibility could be a probability.

I do not hold with the view that when we next vote the winning party will be ahead by a thumping lead. I believe the PN and PL will be much closer to each other than the current opinion polls suggest.

Both parties are regrouping. They have obviously decided to target middle-class floating or new voters, which might cause working class voters within their grassroots support to resent the fact.

Resentment or not, the grassroots will cluster around their respective party. Talk about some massive swing could well prove to be more hope and hype than fact.

If the outcome reflects fresh imbalance between votes cast and seats won, and another unjustified one-seat majority, we will be in for fresh bouts of discontent. Whether the emerging Prime Minister is named Lawrence or Joseph he will find it very hard to meet the expectations of all the elected team.

As always, time will tell. No firm forecast can be made. But one can state firmly that thesystem could play its tricksonce more, to the detriment of representative democracy.

The second fault line, financing, is arguably more inimical to democracy. Voting intentions should be swayed by the clash and contrast of proposals discussed in free debate, not by a party’s or candidate’s purchasing power.

That simple truism has nestled in the heart of criticism and proposals made well before Nationalist MP Franco Debono came on the scene. He has added urgency where none existed before.

It is significant that not even the MP’s well-argued proposals, made from a position of considerable strength since he represents Prime Minister Gonzi’s one-seat majority, have elicited any meaningful response.

Gonzi has joined the ranks of Nationalists attempting to publicly massage Debono’s ego, irrespective what they really think of him.

He went out of his way to praise the MP’s latest speech in Parliament, in which he styled himself a reformer, not a rebel, and, much more seriously, as someone who disagreed with his party on ideological grounds. Yet the Prime Minister made not the slightest nod or gesture towards Debono, to the effect that the financing of politics and politicians would be reviewed and revised within a sensible timeframe.

So on will it go, with candidates spending well above the limit stipulated by law, and parties trying to collect as much money as possible to increase their firepower. Already, individual candidates are incurring expenses in their constituencies of a size set to make the intelligent voter blink.

The trend is even evident at local elections level. It has started at the national level as well, with candidates rushing to man their posts in case there really is an early election.

What is worse than the extent of individual or party financing through pennies or well-laundered heavy cash is the fact that no transparency exists.

The spend by individual candidates and parties can be approximately gauged. But there is no telling how the financing is raised.

Parties point to collections from supporters through endless fundraising events. They make no reference to handouts, in money or in kind, by the business community.

Proper updated regulation of the financing of politics should, at the very least, introduce complete transparency, starting with a legally binding, easily audited framework. It is nowhere in sight. The politicians are happy to leave the hidden-money fault line in place.

Why?

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