Salvu Mallia’s entry in the political scene has grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons, which were often based on lazy sensationalism. I am not very much inclined towards Mallia’s communicative style, but what interests me more is the substance of his discourse. In particular, he expresses the sentiment of certain liberal floating voters who trusted Labour in 2013 but were left disappointed.

My reading of Mallia is that he believes that change can come about within one of the two major parties, given their mass support and voters’ consistent preference for candidates from big parties in general elections.

Most voters who are dissatisfied with one major party tend to shift voting preference to other candidates within the same party or to vote for another major party. Such voters prefer this than voting for a small party or not voting at all. And this is also taking place in a context of decreased voter loyalty.

Hence Mallia’s strategy within the political system against the greater adversary, which according to him is the Muscat-Mizzi-Schembri oligarchy.

Of course, such voters are free to disagree with Mallia and may vote for a small party. And the next elections will seem to offer quite a choice in this regard. But do small parties stand a chance to be elected to parliament?

In my view, as things stand, and basing my view on voting trends, the only way small parties can be elected in parliament is through pre-electoral coalitions with bigger parties. Here small parties may field candidates on big party lists, thus overcoming the fear of the ‘wasted vote’ which concerns many voters. This is because should the respective small party candidate not be elected, he or she would still be on a big party list and the vote would still go to that party.  In a way, this is what Mallia is doing, but without being part of a small party.

The mere existence of small parties can act as an electoral ‘threat’ to big parties which consequently include certain small party issues in their electoral manifestos

Should the candidate be elected, he or she can then be in parliament while remaining a member of a small party. This strategy was adopted by Greens in two general elections in Greece in 2015. They contested on the Syriza party list while remaining green party representatives. This resulted in a Green Alternate Minister for the Environment, Giannis Tsironis.

Needless to say, having a pre-electoral coalition has its risks. The only concrete attempt at having this in 2003, when PN and AD were discussing the possibility, did not result in a coalition. But it guaranteed Malta’s entry into the EU.

Small parties can also form post-election coalitions and may also decide to go it alone in parliament, should any of their candidates be elected. Unless Malta encounters a sudden radical political shift, I wouldn’t bet on this option.

This option however gives primacy to important internal sociological, psychological and organisational factors, such as party identity and hope for future growth. On the other hand, non-election can result in disappointment among candidates and party activists who may opt for other political routes.

Even if small parties are not elected in parliament they have other sources of influence. For example, the existence of Malta’s green party is a major reason why the Maltese public is sensitised on issues such as the environment, civil rights and good governance. And some Greens do get elected in local elections.

Besides, the mere existence of small parties can act as an electoral ‘threat’ to big parties which consequently include certain small party issues in their electoral manifestos.

Small parties can also unintentionally assist one big party over another by winning votes from voters whose demographic background or ideological orientation would be closer to that of another big party.

Which takes us to some big questions. Should small parties put their identity before the bigger picture, or can there be room for compromise? Is it correct for small parties to treat big parties as if they were equivalent?  Does anyone want pre-electoral coalitions? Do grudges and pride assist or hinder collaboration between political parties?

European democracy is full of examples of cross-party collaboration. In Malta this only seems to take place when certain non-partisan individuals in parties work together on civil society issues.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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