Election preview: Malta

Malta goes to the polls tomorrow in an early election called by Labour prime minister Joseph Muscat, who is expected to be returned with a reduced majority.

To understand Maltese elections, you should think of Tasmania, but compressed into a much smaller space. Voting is Hare-Clark proportional representation in five-member districts – thirteen of them – with a quota for election of around 4,000 votes. Although that sounds favorable to minorities, it is in fact a strict two-party system; Labour on the centre-left and the Nationalists on the centre-right.

There is also a Green party, called the Democratic Alternative, but it is much smaller than in Tasmania. In 2013 it won 1.8% of the vote, but it has never won a seat. In fact no-one outside of the two big parties has won a seat since 1962, which is probably a record for a democracy. (For more about the background and how the Maltese system works, see my preview of the last election.)

The ostensible reason for the early election is to not “allow uncertainty to slow the rhythm of Malta’s economic miracle,” but the real reason is obviously a corruption enquiry into the prime minister and his wife over allegations of tax evasion based on the Panama Papers. Muscat evidently feels that if he lets parliament run its full term until next March things may get worse rather than better.

Nonetheless, although the scandal has tarnished Labour, it’s pretty mild by comparison to what a lot of Europe has gone through, and the Maltese economy remains healthy. Polls suggest that the Nationalists, now led by Simon Busuttil, will gain a swing in the region of 3%, which would wipe out about half of the government’s majority.

The government’s position looks a bit more marginal than it really is. The numbers in the outgoing parliament are 38 to 33, but Labour actually won the 2013 election by 39 to 26 (off 54.8% of the vote to 43.3%). One Labour MP subsequently defected to the opposition, four seats were added to the Nationalist total after the election to compensate it for under-representation, and a further two seats were added last year when the constitutional court found that the electoral commission had got the process wrong.

Malta’s odd system of compensatory seats is a result of a constitutional crisis in the 1980s when the electoral system gave a majority of seats to the party that lost the popular vote. It works to prevent that happening again, but at a cost in complexity that could easily have been avoided by abolishing the electoral districts and adopting an open list system of PR across the whole country. The need for a country of only 316 square kilometres to be divided into districts is not obvious, to say the least.

Fortunately, political tempers seem to have cooled a lot since the Cold War era, and Malta’s two parties have alternated in office without any show of fundamental differences between them. At a time when many countries are seeing tectonic shifts in the way their party system operates, Malta looks like registering another vote for stability.

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