Key Challenges

Turmoil leads
to reform
In 2019, Malta was at the center of a number of tempestuous events with both national and international ramifications. The way forward was contextualized in terms of government reforms, and a number of advisory reports were authored at the local, EU and global level.
Focus on reining
in executive
Indeed, in 2020 and 2021, extensive institutional reform has taken place in the three branches of government in order to strengthen the separation of powers. The focus has been on reining in the power of the executive, and strengthening the power of the judiciary and the legislature. The process is not yet complete. 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. Parliament remains a part-time institution. Though 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, legislators prioritize their private sector careers over parliamentary business, dangerously blurring the lines between their private interests and their public-service duties.
Orderly reform
a priority
However, the process is ongoing. It is important that the reforms take place in an orderly manner respecting the synergy between the institutions and recognizing that Malta is a parliamentary democracy. Any shift toward a hybrid system may hinder good governance and political stability. However, for the reforms to be successful, there needs to be recognition of the importance of electoral and party system change, and the need to now support the fourth and fifth estates.
Decaying two-
party system
The electoral system allows for multi-seat electoral districts. Since its inception in 1921, this has facilitated entrenched clientelism and political patronage on a large scale, encouraging a politics of division and distrust. 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. Thus, Malta has the only European parliament with only two parties. The situation has worsened further as the parliamentary opposition party has become increasingly divided, performing poorly in recent elections.
One-party reality
This has led to a dominant one-party system, and a rising number of voters becoming disenchanted with the system and refusing to vote. Changes to the electoral system and the Party Financing Act must take place. These changes need to provide support for minority parties. Proposed changes include introducing a threshold at the national rather than constituency level for parties to enter parliament, state financial support for all political parties, corrective mechanisms that are extended to all parties (e.g., the recent measure to increase the representation of female members of parliament), as well as improving access to the media.
Vacuum in the
power continuum
In recent years in Malta, the poles of power have shifted. We have seen a rise in power of the liberal and left-wing elements, and a decline in the power of religion, the church and the conservatives. This has impacted on the effectiveness of the right wing, including the current opposition. The result is a vacuum in the power continuum, which has been filled by supra-national and local government, civil society, and the media. To some degree, these institutions have taken over the role of the new opposition, and their presence needs to be recognized, acknowledged and where appropriate supported.
Political landscape
has changed
The Maltese political model is predicated on a unitary system. However, EU membership has resulted in multi-level government and the federalizing of the system. Brussels is now part of the body politic, as are local government bodies. Proper recognition of these interests would prove beneficial.
Modernizing media
The fourth estate is an essential component in a democratic system and needs attention. New media laws are being discussed. These should include the further fine-tuning of anti-SLAPP legislation in the context of foreign court judgments, a reform of the freedom of information act, better protection for journalists and state aid to support media houses.
Carving out new role
for civil society
CSOs have contributed positively toward the liberalization and democratization of the political system. The fifth estate has grown in stature since EU membership, supported by EU funding and legislation. Government recognition and funding of this sector, including its incorporation into the MCESD, has also strengthened it. However, they need to be supported further. Better mechanisms need to be introduced to ensure their inclusion in decision-making. This will assist the shift from a relationship based on information-sharing to engagement.
New politics based on social solidarity
The above changes, if effected, should in the long run support a new model of politics. One which will help lessen the current divisive and corrosive environment, and strengthen social solidarity and the notion of the collective, based on inclusivity and underpinned by a better distribution of power. A system where there is greater respect for both the letter and the spirit of the law. This new model may also allow the island to deal more effectively with its two major challenges: the need to protect its environment and ensure that economic development is sustainable; and the need to recognize that Maltese identity since EU membership has evolved, and that the population needs to embrace its own more diverse and eclectic character.
Failing environmental initiatives; ecological disasters mounting
In the case of the first issue, there is agreement over the need to protect the environment and, since 2020, new initiatives have been rolled out. However, decisions negatively impacting the environment continue to be taken. The Planning Authority is often seen as lacking when it comes to timely action, especially within the context of enforcement. An undertaking by the minister of environment to introduce a register where all meetings with stakeholders and lobbyists are logged has not transpired. Though new legislation has been introduced to regulate developers, sub-standard buildings continue to surface. The government continues to refuse to ratify the European convention that would oblige it to protect heritage buildings and respect its threatened landscapes. Several issues are leading to planning and environmental disasters in the country, including amendments to building height guidelines, the rampant destruction of heritage houses, and the development of open spaces and massive projects in small villages. The government is proposing a reduction in penalties for environmental breaches. The wild birds regulation unit remains under the Ministry of Gozo in breach of EU practice. Malta has also been taken to the European Court of Justice for violating a ban on bird trapping. Reforms in the direction of a sustainable economy need to be taken more seriously.
Growing migrant population
In the context of the second issue, Malta’s foreign-born population has increased enormously in recent years, shifting in percentage terms from one of the lowest to one of the European Union’s highest. The introduction of measures addressing the integration of all types 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, with a negative birthrate, integration is a sine qua non for future stability.
A Review of the Constitution of Malta at Fifty; Rectification or Redesign (2014) The Today Public Policy Institute
Godfrey A. Pirotta, Malta: Selected Essays in Governance and Public Administration, MEDAC Publications, 2021.

Party Polarization

Long-standing class-
based 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. 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:
Zero-sum political
• 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 multilevel 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.
Declining levels of party
identification; shift
toward one-party reality
Parties have proven reluctant to abandon the old rules of the game since these are perceived as generating immediate gains. In addition, the electoral system has long provided incentives for political parties to engage in patterns of behavior that ensure the pursuit of such strategies. 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, and further collaborated by recent monthly surveys. Though smaller parties have made in-roads with the voters, despite being handicapped by meager resources and a lack of media exposure, there is a growing awareness that small parties should be allocated more resources. The increase in small parties and the growing number of undecided voters may in the long term soften party polarization, which to some extent has already been affected by the fragmentation of the main opposition party and a growing perception that the Maltese party system is mutating toward a one-party system. (Score: 4)
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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