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The Marlene effect

The Marlene effect may well propel her back into Parliament at the next election. But the electoral system is weighted against her party. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The Marlene effect may well propel her back into Parliament at the next election. But the electoral system is weighted against her party. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The new Democratic Party (Partit Demokratiku) formally elected Marlene Farrugia as their leader on October 21. She sits in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party is, therefore, already represented in Parliament.

The question is whether the party will still be in Parliament following the next election in 2018 (or, quite possibly, even earlier if, as I suspect, the Prime Minister spots an opportunity to go to the country at the end of next year bathed in the success of Malta’s first-ever presidency of the European Union).

The Democratic Party (PD) is a centre-left political party. As such, it is camped on the same political territory occupied today by Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party and Simon Busuttil’s Nationalist Party. Indeed, it stands on exactly the same ground on which Gonzi and Muscat pitched their tents between 2008 and 2013.

The centre-left is now the centre ground of Maltese politics. The only difference between the parties lies in the individual personalities who lead them – and a judgement about their trustworthiness and leadership qualities and their competence and commitment to deliver better government and a thriving economy.

Farrugia is an attractive personality. She was a highly effective and passionate chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Environment. She has political courage and an ability to connect at the human level with her supporters.

She wears her heart on her sleeve. She has her own strong personal electoral base. She appeals to liberal centrists. She may well be re-elected at the next general election, although for reasons which will become clear shortly she would probably be the only PD representative in a new Parliament.

She is realistic enough to recognise that the PD will not displace either the Labour or Nationalist Party in power. But, in the most optimistic scenario with a much reduced Labour Party (the polls have narrowed considerably since the glory days of March 2013), PD promises to hold the balance. It undertakes to stiffen Simon Busuttil’s backbone and to keep the Nationalist Party clean if it were to form a coalition with it.

Farrugia’s party carries no political baggage from the past and she promises, therefore, to be the guarantee that the Nationalist Party in government will not stray from the straight and narrow path which Busuttil is promising.

The cynical among us will say that it is a promise made by successive Opposition leaders before him. It is the mantra of those in opposition to promise incorruptible, efficient, effective government – until the reality and compromises of Maltese political life kick in. Perhaps Busuttil, swayed by the Marlene effect, determined to form “a national coalition against corruption”, will be different.

The Democratic Party’s unique selling point to the electorate at large is that it wants to create calmer, more collaborative politics. However, it also wants to go further and build a truly centrist movement that transcends traditional party boundaries and appeals to those who want to influence politics but, for whatever reason, don’t necessarily want to do so through traditional political parties.

In a sense it is an anti-party political party that promises to rise above partisan politics. It wants to influence politics but, for whatever reason, does not necessarily want to do so through anything as messy as a traditional political party.

The Democratic Party’s unique selling point to the electorate is that it wants to create calmer, more collaborative politics

Most post-party politicians – Donald Trump in the US, Beppe Grillo in Italy, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain – tend to be anti-establishment. Perhaps the figure Farrugia and her executive are seeking to emulate is that of Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist former economy minister, who has created one promising, bottom-up precedent in En Marche! (On the Move!), a cross-partisan, pro-openness movement combining transparency with political reform and a hard-headed dose of economic progressivism. In Marlene Farrugia’s words “good governance, real social justice and environmental sustainability”.

The Democratic Party faces an uphill struggle. Although there is a palpable disenchantment with politics in Malta brought about by the failure of the Prime Minister to deliver on the high-blown promises of Malta Tagħna Lkoll meritocracy, transparency and accountability made before the last election - further blown apart by the Panama Papers corruption scandal - and an ineffectual leader of the Opposition, the old fealties of Malta’s divided politics live on. The future prospects of the country at large remain – despite everything – in the hands of the two-party system.

For PD - as for Alternattiva with its broadly similar aspirations, strong environmental credentials and attractive political idealism - its future survival as an insurgent force in Maltese politics is stymied by our electoral system which is unfairly stacked against third parties.

The compact at the heart of Malta’s majoritarian, first-past-the-post system of government - which neither the Labour nor the Nationalist Party is prepared to disturb or relinquish - gives us stable administration at the price of a distorted, polarised and unrepresentative electoral system. Weak checks and balances in our constitution allow the Prime Minister to wield power virtually unchecked.

The key question is whether the possible presence of a third party in parliament would help or hinder the administration of government in Malta. Would PD in coalition with either PN or PL have stopped the poor governance which has been the hallmark – for different reasons – of Maltese administrations since 2008?

In the last 50 years, except very briefly, only two parties have ever been elected to Parliament. Malta has effectively been ruled by a two-party hegemony. It suffers from a democratic deficit where thousands of electors find themselves disenfranchised by a system which forces them to choose between two major parties whose views often do not reflect their own priorities.

The arrival of PD reminds us of the inequity of the present electoral system and the fundamental need to find alternatives to the current method of electing our representatives for local, parliamentary and European elections. A number of workable options for remedying the current imbalance exist.

Lowering the threshold for election to Parliament to, say, five or eight per cent of the votes cast, would open the electoral field to healthy competition from other political parties. Equivalence in proportionality between votes obtained by a party and the number of its MPs could be applied to the point where a certain percentage of votes nationwide should translate into Parliamentary seats, even if the party concerned has not won a single constituency though nationwide it has obtained a certain percentage.

Changes introduced in 1987, 1996 and 2007, have served to reduce the margins for gerrymandering by the two major parties to undermine the rules of the electoral game as set by the Constitution, but this has undoubtedly left a significant minority of the electorate disenfranchised and unrepresented in Parliament.

The proportion of votes needed for election to Parliament should be reduced and the current thirteen-district constituency arrangement should be replaced by one district as is already the case in European Union Parliament elections.

The Marlene effect may well propel her back into Parliament at the next election. But the electoral system is weighted against her party. Unless a concerted effort is made to remedy the deficiencies in our electoral system, parties like PD and Alternattiva are ill-served and sadly destined to languish as footnotes in Maltese political history.

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