Period of upheaval
In 2020 and 2021, Malta had to deal with a period of extensive upheaval, which included the coronavirus pandemic, the election of a new prime minister and extensive constitutional reform.
Good pandemic management
As elsewhere, the pandemic impacted economic performance, healthcare resources and governance issues. Overall, the government responded well to the crisis. Widespread testing was the cornerstone of Malta’s strategy. The percentage of the population vaccinated was estimated at 87.7% (at the time of writing), among the highest in the European Union. The cumulative mortality rate from COVID-19 at the end of August 2021 was 46%, lower than the average across the European Union, though the indirect death toll could have been higher. Dealing with the pandemic required an increase in public funding for healthcare. However, the cost was absorbed by the island’s strong economic performance in recent years. This allowed for rapid action during the pandemic to expand number of beds and provide adequately for emergency intake. Indeed, only 15% of the population reported unmet needs during the pandemic, one of the lowest rates in the European Union.
Declining support for COVID-19 measures
In Malta, public support for government pandemic procedures was extensive, though toward the end of 2021 protests against COVID-19 measures increased and a group of individuals filed a civil court case against the superintendent of public health, arguing that the measures were disproportionate, and as such unconstitutional and a breach of human rights.
Robust growth after pandemic-era slump
Economic performance during the pandemic declined. GDP fell by 10.9% in 2020, but rose by 9.7% in 2021. The government put in place a number of economic packages in response to the pandemic, which included tax deferments, cash injections, guarantees on the possibility to opt for soft loans and unemployment benefits. The European Commission predicts that Malta’s economic growth for 2022 will reach 6% of GDP, among the highest in the European Union.
Fraying democratic institutions; reporter’s murder shakes system
Though Malta dealt well with the pandemic, the political climate remains tumultuous. For decades, voices have raised concerns about the fraying of institutions due to the limited separation of powers, a lack of independent checks and balances, and the further entrenchment of Malta’s highly partisan two-party system, which has facilitated a system of clientelism and patronage. The further capture of state institutions by such practices (e.g., placing backbench legislators on government boards, and expanding the number and remit of persons of trust) further weakened the model of government. The system imploded with the assassination in 2017 of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist who was covering a number of corruption allegations at the political level. The situation worsened with the arrest of the alleged mastermind in November 2019, a prominent businessman and a close friend of the prime minister’s chief of staff. Mass demonstrations followed, demanding the immediate resignation of the prime minister.
New prime minister
The government survived, but 2020 began with the election of a new prime minster, Robert Abela, and the downgrading of Malta from a full to a flawed democracy in the Democracy Index. The government responded by heeding the calls of local and international organizations for the further reform of government institutions, which had been haphazardly addressed under the previous administration.
A whole raft of constitutional reforms have been introduced. The Office of the President will now be elected by a two-thirds majority in parliament. The judiciary is no longer appointed by the prime minister. Its independence has been further enhanced by the transfer of disciplinary control from parliament to a judicial commission. Reforms of the Office of the Attorney General have taken place and a new less partisan manner of appointing the police commissioner has also been adopted, while much greater resources are being provided to investigative bodies. Further reforms include amendments to the appointment of members to the permanent commission against corruption, amendments to the laws regulating the Office of the Ombudsman, amendments to the laws regulating the appointment of permanent secretaries, amendments to the laws on the appointment of persons of trust, amendments to the laws pertaining to the National Audit Office and amendments to the process of judicial review of the decisions of the attorney general. Procedures for various appointments have also been updated, including appointment procedures for the heads of regulatory bodies and politically appointed representatives abroad, who are to be scrutinized by a new consultative parliamentary committee before taking office. A new law now ensures that ministers, members of parliament and senior officials accused of breaching codes of ethics are accountable to the Public Standards Office.
The statutes of limitations has been removed in cases of alleged corruption by politicians and senior officials. In tandem with these reforms, an overhaul of public administration has also taken place to ensure a more efficient client-centered apparatus.
Concerns over money laundering; conflicts of interest persist
Though these reforms are extremely efficacious, Malta remains in a state of flux. In June 2021, the island was grey listed. The Malta Employer Association (MEA) utilized responses from a survey distributed to its members to determine their views on why this had occurred. The MEA cited money laundering, defective rule of law, weak institutions, a lack of transparency and institutional corruption. In July 2021, the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia published its conclusions, stating that “the state had to shoulder the responsibility for the assassination because it had created an atmosphere of impunity generated from the highest levels in the heart of the administration.” Government scandals still surface regularly. In one such case, an opposition member of parliament alleged that a suspected money launderer used insiders at Transport Malta to erase over €3 million in traffic contraventions. Conflicts of interest are still evident in the hiring of personnel, allocating direct orders and permits, and tendering processes. The sanctioning of illegalities and irregularities continues. Finally, the government remains hesitant to fully distance itself from the old guard who were involved in nefarious activities.
Changing political culture; need for a credible political opposition
The political landscape in Malta, however, is evolving. EU membership has been a catalyst for socioeconomic change and multi-level governance has altered the political culture. Increasingly, CSOs are making their voices heard locally, and – along with opposition parties – are interacting with and appealing to EU institutions. A rise to over 10% of foreign-born residents has resulted in numerous minorities raising their voices and demanding greater access to the political market. The number of resignations from government positions has never been higher, as the government seeks to shed its renegade elements. The number of co-options to parliament has also never been higher, with the government attempts to adopt a more technocratic approach toward the selection of ministers. De-alignment and realignment of voters, resulting in the shifting of the party system toward a dominant one-party system, has encouraged even government members to talk about the need for electoral reform, which will provide for a credible and electable opposition. Systemic change is allowing for greater transparency and scrutiny of government. As the island shifts from a political culture based on status to one of contract, the electorate are less willing to accept the fallout, and inequalities, generated by a politics of clientelism and patronage. Citizens and residents alike are demanding accountability and higher standards from their government. What started as a whimper may evolve into a roar for change, which may resonate beyond the institutions and finally reach the ears of the political class. Only time will tell if they heed the cry.