Election preview: Malta

Malta, the smallest member of the European Union, goes to the polls today to elect a new government after incumbent prime minister Lawrence Gonzi was defeated in a vote of confidence at the end of last year (although elections were due about now anyway). Polling suggests that Gonzi’s centre-right Nationalist Party will be defeated by the opposition Labour Party, under Joseph Muscat.

Malta has about as many people as Tasmania (although in a much smaller area), and funnily enough it has the same electoral system: Hare-Clark proportional representation (which the Europeans call Single Transferable Vote, or STV), with five-member districts (13 of them, for a unicameral parliament of 65).

But in Malta a refinement has proved necessary. In a very divisive election in 1981, the Nationalist Party won a majority of the vote but Labour won a majority of seats. When that happened in South Australia in 2010 nobody seemed to care, but in Malta there was a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Instead of throwing out the system and switching to something like the German mixed-member system (as New Zealand did in 1993), Malta made a more ad hoc change, providing that if the same thing happened again the party with a majority of the vote would be allocated enough additional seats to give it a (bare) majority in parliament.

The additional seats were needed in two of the following three elections, in 1987 and 1996 (Labour and the Nationalists each benefited once). But in 1996 a further amendment was made (see section 52(1) of the Maltese constitution) to extend the concept to the case where no party won a majority of the vote but only two parties were elected to parliament and the party with a plurality of the vote failed to win a majority of seats. (There’s a good explanation of the system here.)

The problem with this is that it subverts the whole idea of preferential voting. There is no two-party-preferred count (although it would be technically quite possible); all that matters is the plurality of first-preference votes.

This all rests on perhaps the most interesting feature of Malta’s system: that despite having had proportional representation for almost a century, for most of that time it has had quite a strict two-party system. In 2008, more than 98% voted for one of the two major parties, and that’s been the case since 1971.

But in 2008 the system worked against Labour: neither party had a majority, but the Nationalists led by 0.5% and therefore got the bonus seats to give them a one-seat majority. The Greens (known as the Democratic Alternative) had 1.3%, so it’s quite possible that their voters would actually have preferred Labour. (Adam Carr’s Psephos has all the figures.)

This time there doesn’t look like being much doubt. Gonzi’s government has had a difficult run, and Labour is a strong favorite. The Greens are set for a record vote, although their chance of winning a seat is still slim. Malta is very small, but nonetheless it will be another feather in the cap for the European left.

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