Malta

   
 

Key Challenges

Impetus for reform must be local; party system has been corrosive
In 2019, Malta was at the center of tempestuous events at both the EU and global levels. Advisory reports outlining a way forward in the context of government reform have been authored by the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), the Council of Europe’s Moneyval body and the Venice Commission. Though these reports will prove helpful, the way forward ultimately needs to be mapped out locally. Democratic institutions are essential; however, it is the way they are implemented and enforced that gives them credibility and sustainability. In order for the reforms to be effective and durable, the Maltese need to deal once and for all with their bete noir. A partisan mentality continues to characterize Maltese society. Despite some dealignment and realignment within the party system, the party-identification model remains dominant. The unshakable alignment of core groups with specific parties has created an extremely divisive, corrosive and toxic environment on the island. The result has been the creation of a wasteland in terms of political discourse, where much of the population engages with information within mutually exclusive echo chambers. Conflict is avoided rather than negotiated, and what compromise and consensus does emerge is built on shifting sands. Though the political model is predicated on consensually united elites, the shift has been toward dis-unified elites, especially since 2017. A reluctance to discuss politics has resulted in a situation in which key issues contributing to group identity are sidelined. One central theme is that of coming to terms with the nation’s recent history, for unlike other nations, a process of historical revisionism is still in its infancy. With no agreement over the interpretation of past political events, the creation of consensus on present and future developments becomes much harder.
Key challenges as country moves forward
Nevertheless there seems to be a consensus that for the country to move forward, three major challenges need to be dealt with. The first is constitutional reform and the creation of greater respect for the tools of governance. The second is the acknowledgment that a small island state needs to protect its environment and ensure that economic development is sustainable. The third challenge is the recognition that Maltese identity since EU membership has evolved, and that the population needs to embrace its own more diverse and eclectic character.
Electoral system must
be reviewed
With regard to the first challenge, the process is already underway. However, it is essential that certain key structures, as yet untouched, be reformed. The first of these is the electoral system, which allows for multi-seat electoral districts; since its inception in 1921, this has facilitated entrenched clientelism and political patronage on a large scale. Although the single transferrable vote (STV) system was intended to promote a multiparty system in Malta, it eventually gave rise to a strong two-party system. Amendments passed in the 1980s and 1990s have only worsened the situation. The two-party system has failed to encourage a bipartisan approach. Instead, the winner-takes-all approach has bred a destructive politics of division and mutual distrust. Malta thus remains the only European parliament with only two parties. A shift to a multiparty system that would better represent diverse views and help erode polarization is essential. Electoral-system changes, better access to the media and state support to all political parties will be needed to carry this through.
Prime minister’s power should be reassessed
Another challenge is the need to reassess the current Westminster governance model. This model invests a great deal of power in the hands of the prime minister. While prime ministers in Malta today have less power than their predecessors, they do retain control over most appointments on the political and higher administrative levels. However, changes to offices and institutions must be carefully weighed in the light of Malta’s small size. A hybrid system that would ultimately hinder good governance and political stability rather than promoting it needs to be avoided.
Part-time legislature
is weakness
A third obstacle to good governance is the fact that the legislature is a part-time institution, with members generally dedicating only a fraction of their time to parliamentary affairs. Parliament has been strengthened by an increase in the number of parliamentary committees, and a 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. Over the last 20 years, this has given rise to a dangerous blurring of lines between the private interests of members of parliament and their public-service duties. Discussions on a full-time parliament has commenced in conjunction with a debate on reforms to promote gender parity of members of parliament.
Moving toward greater respect for law
A cultural change with regard to citizen participation in politics on the island is also required. There is need for a greater respect for both the letter and the spirit of the law. The practice of direct orders involving large amounts of money need to be abandoned, tendering processes need to be carefully monitored, the utilization of persons of trust should be kept to a minimum, and regulatory institutions need to penalize violators.
Development undermining ecological goals
Though there is agreement over the need to protect the environment, and reforms seem to be ongoing within the planning and environmental authority, decisions negatively impacting the environment continue to be taken. Development on land zoned for no development has continued, and an initiative intended to bar the relocation of gas stations to agricultural zones has not been implemented. Recently, a unit concerned with the protection of wild birds was relocated from the Ministry of environment to the Ministry for Gozo, a move which NGOs claim is contrary to the law and undermines the government’s ability to provide for the unit’s needs. Despite the government commitment’s to support a transition to a sustainable economy, CO2 emissions remain problematic. Reforms in the direction of sustainable economy need to be taken more seriously. In the last year, the country has seen the collapse of four homes as a result of negligence by developers. The last incident resulted in a woman’s death.
Integration of migrants needed for stability
Finally Malta’s foreign-born population has increased enormously in recent years, shifting in percentage terms from one of the lowest such rates to one of the EU’s highest. The introduction of measures addressing the integration of migrants has become imperative. Such measures have indeed been drawn up, but now must be implemented. However, an increase in the number of migrants arriving, a subsequent large-scale rise in dissenting voices and a return to a suboptimal detention policy has hindered the process. Nevertheless in an island country the size of Malta, integration is a sine qua non for future stability.
Citations:
A Review of the Constitution of Malta at Fifty; Rectification or Redesign (2014) The Today Public Policy Institute
 

Party Polarization

Class cleavage reflected
in party system
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. 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. This situation is further exacerbated by a number of variables:
Winner-take-all system creates zero-sum game
• 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. The fault lies mainly with the electoral system, which provides incentives for political parties to engage in a pattern of behavior that ensures the pursuit of such strategies. (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 Europeanization from Malta to Cyprus, Bloomsbury London 2019
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