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Question time: Unlikely scenario?

How would democracy be affected if a political party has a two-thirds parliamentary majority?

Randolph Debattista, CEO Labour Party

I find the question too hypothetical and the proposed scenario very unlikely. Although the last two general elections resulted in landslide victories by Maltese standards, the effect in parliamentary majority was far from a two-thirds majority, and I don’t see this changing in the foreseeable future.

Now it is true that the latest opinion polls put the Labour Party in a historic lead over the Nationalist Party, but one cannot ignore the context and timing of such polls. As leading pollster Vincent Marmara has said, it is not the best time to gauge public opinion. This due to the fact that we have just witnessed the unravelling of the biggest frame-up plot in Maltese political history, one which showed how members of the Opposition party stop at nothing to destabilise the government, even at the expense of the country.

Moreover, the publication of the Egrant inquiry conclusions was followed by yet another internal power struggle within the Nationalist Party between the current and former leaders, and their respective clans.

All this led to more people expressing their distrust in Adrian Delia when asked by the pollster. Something which will not necessarily and automatically subsist in the years to come.

The discussion should be focused on how the Opposition should work towards becoming a credible alternative to the government

Having said that, the level of support for the Labour Party and the government is not incidental. 

This government keeps its promises. Less than a year and a half after winning a new mandate, Labour is delivering on the main electoral pledges, including free school transport for all children, record investment in infrastructure, tax refunds, and more civil rights.

These positive changes can be felt by the Maltese people and they keep making Malta one of the best in Europe in a number of areas.

I am also comforted by the fact that despite all the bickering from the Opposition we have strong institutions that provide for the necessary checks and balances. These institutions were strengthened by the Labour government, as it implemented changes to reinforce the democratic process. This includes the autonomy of Parliament and the way in which the judiciary is selected.

Civil society and the media are other important pillars of the democratic process, and these were also given more power by the current administration.

Elections are not won because one party has more faithful supporters than the other. People make their choices based on who is best to provide a better future for their families and for the country. It is elitist and dangerous to suggest that the people’s will expressed in a democratic way could be misguided.

Up until just a decade ago, the general election in Malta was won by a mere 1,500 votes. Labour was condemned to a further five years in opposition. No one lamented that this was a disservice to democracy, since the people’s will had been expressed. As a party, we embarked on a journey of change and showed how we can change the country. We did not expect to be re-elected to government simply because the PN had been in power for too long.

We have built a movement based on principles, and we are now the natural choice for the Maltese. Therefore, the discussion should be focused on how the Opposition should work towards becoming a credible alternative to the government.

Michael Briguglio, Sociologist and PN councillor

The most obvious powers that a political party will have if it obtains two-thirds parliamentary majority relate to constitutional change. The governing party will be able to change this national pact in ways which it deems fit, and the parliamentary opposition will have basically no way to stop the process.

The Constitution of Malta extensively covers various aspects of social life in the country, from language to the right to work, from the promotion of culture to the safeguarding of landscape, from compulsory and free primary education to the rights of women workers and minors, from social assistance to private enterprise, from citizenship to the powers of parliament, from fundamental rights to the powers of the executive and the judiciary, and from public finance to the civil service. Just imagine what powers a party would have if it could change the Constitution at its whim, courtesy of a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Two-thirds parliamentary majority can also grant the governing party the authority to appoint the Auditor General and the Ombudsman of its choice, and yet again the Opposition’s voice would be legally powerless. Given that these two important roles exist precisely to scrutinise government’s operations, a two-thirds parliamentary majority can grant government the authority to appoint partisan loyalists instead of independent and authoritative figures.

It is the voter who has the power to steer Malta’s direction

One can argue that if a political party gains a two-thirds parliamentary majority, it is only fair that it could have the power to change the Constitution and appoint such key persons without consulting the Opposition, let alone civil society. The argument goes that numbers speak for themselves and that voters would have entrusted the party in question to carry out such changes.

In a way, this argument is logically correct, but before rushing to enthusiastically embrace it, I recommend that one should reflect on its implications. A two-thirds parliamentary majority can result in Malta moving away from the values, norms and laws of Western liberal democracies towards illiberal democracies where winners take all, where parliamentary opposition is effectively powerless and where civil society is suffocated.

Malta’s independence, status of republic and EU membership were historic dates which helped the country move towards western liberal democracy: This is not just about electing a government. It is about basic individual rights, checks and balances, free press, a vibrant civil society, minority rights, rule of law and the separation of power away from a monolithic top-down structure.

In the past years, Malta was also within the process of discussing constitutional reform, though this seems to have stalled. In this regard, Giovanni Bonello, a constitutional expert and a former member of the European Court of Human Rights argues that if anything Malta needs to give more authority to its Constitution and less to Parliament, to safeguard the rights mentioned above and spare Maltese society from despotic leaders. He argues that Malta’s constitutional court seems to accept that Parliament, rather than the Constitution, holds supreme power in Malta. Hence, this calls for a reform which reverses the situation.

If Malta wants to retain its status as a western liberal democracy, such authoritative warnings should be given due respect, and we should ensure that no party would ever have the opportunity to change the Constitution at its whim. History teaches us that the more power is centralised, the bigger the incentives for ruling elites to retain it. This also includes benevolent authoritarians who ultimately resort to tyranny and repression. And when we do not learn the lessons of history we may be susceptible to repeat them.

Ultimately, it is the voter who has the power to steer Malta’s direction. At the same time, it is the duty of political parties, civil society, the media and the educational system to help voters reflect on rights and responsibilities within the political system.

If you would like to put any questions to the two parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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