Malta

   
 

Key Challenges

Hurdles to governance reform
A number of good-governance reforms have slowly been making their way to the statute books since 2013, but the process remains hampered by three major obstacles: the electoral system, a largely outmoded political system and a parliament of part-time legislators. If reforms are to take place in all three areas, changes to the constitution must be made.
Entrenched clientelism
in electoral system
The electoral system, which allows for multi-seat electoral districts, has since its inception in 1921 entrenched clientelism and political patronage on a large scale. Although the single transferrable vote (STV) system was intended to promote a multi-party system in Malta it eventually gave rise to a strong two-party system. Amendments passed in 1987 aiming to ensure that the party which obtained 50 percent plus one of first-count votes should form the government have actually made matters worse, as parties now fight for every vote with every means at their disposal. The two-party system has failed to encourage a bipartisan approach even when this would be beneficial for Malta. Instead, the winner-takes-all approach has bred a destructive politics of division and mutual distrust.
Compromise on reform proving difficult
Some believe that a shift from a two-party to a multi-party system may erode this us-against-them polarization. However, for this to happen, the electoral system has to be radically changed; under the current situation, every party that hopes to make it to parliament must work within the system. It will not be easy for the parties to compromise on a change. However, the evidence shows that good governance reforms tend to be slow to make an impact due to the way the electoral system pushes the society toward clientelism and patronage. Debate on systemic change remains in its infancy, however.
Prime minister holds
too much power
Another challenge in Malta is the need to reassess the current form of the Westminster governing model. This model invests a great deal of power in the hands of the prime minister, and does not reflect many of the changes that have been implemented in the United Kingdom over the years. For example, the prime minister continues to hold control over nearly every appointment on the political and higher administrative levels. The attorney general still acts as prosecuting officer and adviser to the government. However, changes to offices and institutions must be carefully weighed in the light of Malta’s small size, as this factor does play a role in Maltese politics. Furthermore, when reforming institutions, there is need to guard against ending up with a hybrid system that would ultimately hinder good governance rather than promoting it.
Appointment changes
are good first step
Two recent changes, one affecting the appointment of magistrates and judges, and the other requiring appointment a two-thirds parliamentary majority for certain key appointments, are a step in the right direction. The recent creation of a judicial-appointments committee is the first step toward strengthening the independence of the judiciary, and further changes proposed by the minister overseeing this area will strengthen the separation of powers. The introduction of courses for lawyers pursuing a judicial career is long overdue, and the process of nominating needs to be formalized.
Legislature should be made full time
A third obstacle to good governance is the fact that the legislature is a part-time institution, with members dedicating only a fraction of their time to parliamentary affairs. However, parliament has been strengthened by the introduction of the ombuds office, the yearly increase in the number of parliamentary committees, and the new rule empowering the speaker’s office to draw up reform plans and oversee the parliament’s budget. However, legislators still tend to prioritize their private-sector careers over parliamentary business, diminishing their contribution to government and lowering the public’s opinion of them. Especially over the last 20 years, this has given rise to a dangerous blurring of lines between many MPs’ private interests and their public-service duties. Overall, the parliament contributes little to policymaking in Malta, although the increase in the number of parliamentary committees has brought some positive change to the institution. The institution should be shifted to a full-time basis.
Strong opposition party would be beneficial
Although discussion of the need for institutional reform remains widespread, the evidence suggests that reform is likely to be piecemeal, and will only be possible after extensive interparty discussions. Public debate may help to press the parties to embark on discussions, but the state in which the opposition finds itself makes early agreement on reforms highly unlikely. Indeed, one of the key challenges currently facing Malta is the absence of a strong and constructive opposition party. Although a third party has made it to parliament, this was not achieved independently, but instead on another party’s ballot line. This means it remains unclear whether this third party has electoral support of its own, and whether it has the ability to win seats in the next general election. Nevertheless, its very existence has currently served to fragment the opposition further, which has not improved the environment for cross-party agreement on reforms, given the strong majority enjoyed by the party in government.
Oversight institutions improving
Another step in the right direction is the appointment, following consensus between the two main parties, of the commissioner for standards in public life, who heads an office approved by parliament in 2016. For further progress, the Ombuds Office should have its overview powers extended to cover the public bodies still outside its remit, be granted powers equivalent to those of the Audit Office, and be given the remit to conduct annual reviews of the efficiency of government ministries and departments. When not implemented by the government, the recommendations of the Ombuds Office should be placed before parliament for further discussion. The long-standing practice of employing political appointees in the public administration must be reviewed, as it undermines transparency and accountability. The parliament’s Appointments Committee, recently established to assist in the selection of ambassadors and commission heads, may help inculcate consensual political practices, but the procedure needs to be developed further. However, if this is to happen, an open debate about the changes carried out in the 1990s under the guise of New Public Management reforms, and which have greatly facilitated this development, needs to be undertaken. Efforts to audit the work of the executive and its civil administration in procedures such as tendering could be further facilitated by an amelioration of the freedom of information act.
Independent ethics committee needed
There is also a need for an independent ethics committee able to oversee the various ethics codes regulating public servants. The Permanent Commission Against Corruption must be better staffed, meet more frequently and ensure that all cases are satisfactorily concluded. While making corruption accusations has been a common method of attacking the serving government since 1921, such assertions are rarely followed up once opposition parties gain office, thereby producing the impression that there is no real commitment to fight corruption.
Construction industry drives polarization
The construction industry, which is thriving as big investment companies seek to make Malta a center for their business, continues drive polarization in the debate over environmental issues. Recent reforms that decoupled the planning and environmental authorities must be reassessed to ensure that both authorities participate fully in decisions related to development planning and the protection of Malta’s natural habitats.
Migrant policy must
be implemented
Measures addressing the integration of migrants have been drawn up, and must now be implemented. Recent events that saw an escalation in tension with Italy’s newly elected right-wing government have given rise to dissenting voices on a large scale; however, in an island country the size of Malta, integration is a sine qua non for future stability.
Police force needs
greater resources
Finally, Malta’s police force must be afforded the necessary competences and resources to fulfill the challenging tasks facing the island. Malta’s economy is now heavy enmeshed in the international economy, and in consequence is facing levels of international crime unprecedented for the small island country. The appointment of an experienced CEO within the police force was a step forward, and the ongoing debate over enhanced training and new recruitment structures, if followed up, will further strengthen the force.
Citations:
A Review of the Constitution of Malta at Fifty; Rectification or Redesign (2014) The Today Public Policy Institute
 

Party Polarization

Class is dominant
political cleavage
Political-system polarization has been a permanent feature of Maltese politics since parties began to emerge in the 19th century. As in other countries in Southern Europe, the state in Malta has long been divided by the single dominant cleavage of class, characterized on the one hand by a conservative, traditional and religious elite, and on the other by a nascent liberal, progressive and anti-clerical counter-elite. These two groups have aspired to and represented different models of the state; for many years, the danger of political crisis was never far from the surface, and in the early years of independence, bouts of violence sporadically erupted. However, agreement on an appropriate state model slowly emerged, and Malta’s status as a neutral republic and member of the European Union has ultimately generated consensus.
Parties tap into divisions
to further interests
In the last 30 years, violence generated as a result of political discord has been rare. Nevertheless, parties continue to tap into previous divisions in order to further their own short-term interest, and to generate support based on party identification.
Zero-sum political system
This situation is further exacerbated by a number of variables:
 
• Many pressure groups are led by individuals who are also activists in a political party.
 
• The two main political parties own their own sound, print and visual media, which are used to fan controversies.
 
• The winner-take-all political system generates a zero-sum game in which parties in opposition tend not simply to oppose governments, but to lay siege to them, often circulating false stories and spreading unsettling rumors.
 
• The introduction of multi-level government in 2004 now means that these conflicts have been replicated both at the local and the supranational/international levels, extending the battlefields to the villages and beyond the shores of Malta.
 
• As in other states, the need to bring perpetrators of political violence to justice has also continued to entrench polarization.
Increasing volatility in voting patterns
However, Malta has also shown increasing volatility in voting patterns, a shift from a party-identification to an issue-based voting model, and a consequent process of dealignment within the party system. This was illustrated by the unprecedented electoral landslides of 2013 and 2017. Nevertheless, parties have proved reluctant to abandon the old rules of the game if these are perceived as generating any immediate gains. (Score: 4)
Citations:
Godfrey A. Pirotta, “Bringing Good Governance to Malta”, in M.T. Vassallo, Public Life in Malta, University of Malta, 2012.
Calleja Ragonesi Isabelle, Democracy in Southern Europe, Colonialism, International Relations and Europeanisation from Malta to Cyprus, Bloomsbury London 2019
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