Friday, March 09, 2007

Interesting times

As always, these are interesting times for Malta. Tomorrow the country will go to the polls for what may be the last round of local elections before the general election. If tomorrow's result will be in line with the past few local election results then there will be little that the Nationalist Party can do to turn the tables on Labour in the short time remaining. In that case, the almost uninterrupted 'ventennio' of the Nationalists is about to come to an end, although I doubt if this would lead to radical changes within the party itself, as there is no real immediate alternative to the party's current leadership, at least within the party's parliamentary group. If, on the other hand, the Nationalists' slide is arrested or partially reversed then we may be about to witness the end of the Alfred Sant era in the Labour Party. Either way, the coming months will see a very significant change in our seemingly static political system. Tomorrow's result might well give us a preview of how it's going to go. The only pity, from my perspective, is that I won't be able to follow it too closely as I'll be on my travels. I'll be back with my comments on this and other issues in a couple of weeks' time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Times, Xarabank and Statistics

The headline of an article by Herman Grech in the Times of Saturday 24th February tells us that, according to the latest Xarabank survey 'Labour [would] win if election is held today'. Then it proceeds to inform us that the sample on which this conclusion was based consisted of individuals who in the last election voted predominantly for Labour (at least those of them who had voted in 2003 or who chose to answer the question). Leaving aside the obvious fact that there is a problem with the sample (which grossly understates the PN's vote and overstates those of both Labour and Alternattiva), one may simply note that, when those who did not express a clear voting intention are left out of the calculation, the situation would have changed from MLP 53% PN 45.5% AD 1.5% in 2003 (in the real world: MLP 47.51% PN 51.79% AD 0.68%) to MLP 54.5% PN 43.02% AD 2.45%. This is not a huge change from this sample's 2003 performance, and would mean that the two parties are virtually neck and neck (while Alternattiva will not go far beyond the 1% mark).
Now, I don't know who will win the next general election, although I have always more or less assumed that Labour are in pole position. This survey would suggest that the race is more open than I had thought. Having said that, I'm not at all convinced that a survey that screws up its sample this badly should be given too much weight (the next round of local council elections should give us a clearer indication, I think). Nor, I must say, did the Times cover itself with glory with its interpretation.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Italian for Beginners

I have often written about what I believe to be the disadvantages of having more than two political parties represented in Parliament. In particular, here I had written that:
It could be argued that a two-coalition system can achieve [the moderation of the political debate] just as well as a two-party system. I believe it can do so only to the extent that the coalitions behave like parties (as the Conservative-Liberal Unionist coalition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did in the UK). Seconda Repubblica style coalitions are unstable and tend to lead to situations where the tail wags the dog. The very fact that extremist parties of all hues end up being incorporated and legitimized is, I think, a bad thing in itself. It would be much better, in my humble opinion, if their voters are recruited by the moderate parties, who would take whatever legitimate interests they may have into account in order to acquire and keep their support.
I think that what's happening right now in Italy bears this out. But I also think that the source of Italy's current crisis is not just the extremists. The Prodi government was also betrayed by centrist life senators, some of whom may be interested in a new centrist coalition or in a centre-left coalition that excludes the Communists and the Greens. Whatever the merits of these options, they are not what the electorate voted for. For example, those who voted for the UDC did so because they thought that that party was the Christian-Democratic component of the centre-right coalition. Should UDC join any other coalition during this legislature it would essentially be betraying its voters' trust.
Those who wish to introduce full proportional representation in Malta in the hope that this would lead to the entry of Alternattiva (and possibly other small parties) in Parliament and to the splintering of the main parties would do well to take note of what's happening a few kilometres north of our shores.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Our House of Lords

Today's Times reports that the Shipyards, the abode of our Workers' Aristocracy, are estimated to have lost another Lm 8.8 million (app. €20 million or about 15% of our budget deficit) last year, all of which will have to be coughed up by the public.
I sometimes wonder whether it wouldn't be actually cheaper to set them up as a real aristocracy and just pay them to stay at home. If the current restructuring process doesn't make the company viable by next year (as planned) then that's probably what it will come down to.
Before it's put out of its misery, though, maybe somebody should invite Hugo Chavez for a visit. It certainly did leave a strong impression on Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew when he visited in 1967:
I was determined that our attitude to British aid, indeed any aid, would be the opposite of Malta's. When I visited Malta in 1967 to see how it had sorted out its problems after the rundown of the British forces, I was astounded. The Suez Canal had been closed as a result of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War three months earlier, in June. Ships were no longer going through the canal, hence the dockyard in Malta was closed, but dockyard workers on full pay were playing water polo in the dry dock which they had filled with water! I was shaken by their aid dependency, banking on continuing charity from the British. The British had given fairly generous redundancy payments, including five weeks' salary for each year of service, and had also covered the cost of three months' retraining in Maltese government institutions. This nurtured a sense of dependency not self-reliance.

From Third World to First (2000), p. 52.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

It seems they like omelette

As if the police hadn't made themselves look sufficiently stupid already, they have now appealed Magistrate Mizzi's decision acquitting the 31 foreign lap-dancers.
I'd love to know what goes on in these people's brains, if they have any. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but all this enthusiasm in the pursuit of a case that clearly has no merit and has already cost their credibility (and the public purse) dearly strikes me as rather odd. In a small country like Malta where everyone knows everyone else and where conflicts of interest are the norm, it is not seemly for the authorities to fail to provide adequate public justification for decisions that have consequences on the marketplace (in this case the entertainment industry of the Paceville/St. Julians area).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Egg on their faces

The local morality police have suffered a rather humiliating reverse with this eminently sensible decision by Magistrate Antonio Mizzi.
On 23rd January I had expressed my amazament at the fact that the police had got into this in the first place. Is it possible that after so many decades as an independent nation we have not understood the basic distinction between church and state and between sin and crime?
I do hope that a full explanation will be given to the taxpayer as to why scarce resources were wasted in a silly attempt at preventing people from enjoying their basic personal freedoms.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Remembrance of Horrors Past

The news that Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a senior (and unrepentant) member of the notorious and brutal Baader-Meinhof gang ('officially' known as the Red Army Faction), is to walk free after serving only a fraction of her five 'life' sentences for multiple murders, does not surprise me. However, it does bring back memories of the 1970s and early 1980s. Although I was a child, I still remember Baader-Meinhof's equally brutal Italian counterparts, the Brigate Rosse, and their kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro. The war against this cancer was won, but certainly not thanks to some on the left who claimed that they were 'neither with the state nor with the Red Brigades'. Incidentally, what's left of the Brigades appear to have just been prevented from carrying out another attack, this time against former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
On a different but related note, another excellent article by Michael Falzon in yesterday's Sunday Times discusses the more ordinary type of criminality (but which is no less harmful to its victims). As is often the case, I agree with almost everything he says, except that he seems to deny that the sentences being given by the Courts are too lenient. I think anyone who regularly reads a Maltese newspaper would have noticed that most, though not all, judges regularly mete out ridiculously light sentences. Bail is also often given to the most unlikely of defendants, including one who was accused of savagely murdering the mother of his child. All questions of justice aside, I don't think this is very respectful of the right of innocent citizens to live in their homes without fear.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Electoral System - (third and final part)

So, finally, to the question: are there, in fact, any political groups that could break the 'duopoly'?
1. Alternattiva: very unlikely. Alternattiva can't decide on what sort of party it wants to be. In order to force its way into Parliament it will have to establish itself as a local phenomenon in some part of the island. I don't think that a party that's socially liberal, supports a soft line on illegal immigration and leans to the left economically will do the trick in Gozo. It won't do the trick in the tenth district either. They're too far to the left, and with very few exceptions their candidates are not the type of people that either Gozitans or the English-speaking middle class identify with. If they're determined to continue being a political party they will have to acquire a new identity and shift to the right, or at least the centre, and become truly local in the areas they've chosen. The dreams about getting 2000 first preference votes and another 1000 plus net lower preference votes are just another way of saying that they need to get the support of around 14% in a given district. Since most of these electors would presumably have to come from the ranks of the Nationalist Party (which has a very large majority in the 10th and a very significant one in the 13th - and whose voters are considered more independent), it would mean siphoning off 20-25% of the Nationalist vote in that party's heartland.
2. Josie Muscat: a one-man-show. His Grupp Indipendenti Marsaskala did get just over 15% of first preference votes in the last round of Local Elections, and he took one of the PN's three seats. He's obviously also strong in Zabbar. Even if he manages to reclaim his old seat, which is unlikely, this would not amount to a serious challenge to the 'duopoly'. It would just be a personal comeback by a former senior Nationalist politician.
3. The fringe movements (other than Alternattiva): impossible (thank Heavens!). By definition, extreme-left and extreme-right groups are never going to become national parties. Fortunately, they do not have a strong local presence either. They can be pressure groups at best.
4. Big-party splinter groups: unlikely, unless there is a traumatic event in the Labour Party, such as another electoral defeat and another particularly acrimonious leadership battle. A serious split in the MLP might, under certain circumstances, lead to a multi-party system for some years. As in the past, this would probably be a temporary phenomenon, although at the end of the day it might give us a better two-party system than the one we have now.
5. A party of the well-to-do: technically possible, but probably won't happen. As Daphne pointed out in her opinion-piece last week (see also Jacques), there is an increasing split between the English-speaking middle class, with its generally liberal outlook, and the more traditional segments of the population. The English-speaking middle class is also concentrated in a couple of contiguous districts, where it constitutes the vast majority of the population. A party on the lines of Germany's Free Democrats could, under the right circumstances, elect MPs in the 10th district and then cooperate with the Nationalists in Parliament. This becomes less unlikely the more the Nationalist Party alienates this important segment of its electorate. The religious conservatism of the current leadership weakens the Party there, but a poor showing in the next general election would probably force it to rethink its policies in order to win these voters back. If, for some reason, it cannot do so, then a more flexible arrangement might become appropriate. I don't think it will come to this for the simple reason that the Nationalist leadership has not yet lost its mind, although it might have lost its common sense.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Electoral System - II

Last Saturday I posted my first in a series of three posts on the electoral system. I claimed that the two-party system we have in Malta is as much a product of our political history (particularly the post-war Labour Party's size and orientation) as of the electoral system itself (which does not exclude third parties but makes it difficult for them to break in, and hastens their exit when they're in decline. Fausto made an interesting comment about the system actually encouraging splits, which I think it does, although only under certain conditions and not to the same extent that a pure PR system would.
Another part of Fausto's comment leads me to today's subject:
It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the direction of causality, but I think it is significant that in British political system the two main parties resembled each other the most in the 1950s (at the time of "Butskellism") when the two party system was then at its height.
Now, I am no great admirer of 'Butskellism' as such. However, I'm a great admirer of political moderation (which is what Butskellism was at that time), and I believe that this is what a two-party system delivers. To be electable, the two parties will have to stick to the centre-ground (whatever that may be at that particular point in time). Presenting a radical programme will mean almost certain defeat, although parties may still do it when they think they have a superiour idea that will triumph in the longer term. If it continues to lose them elections, however, they will eventually be forced to abandon it.
It could be argued that a two-coalition system can achieve this just as well as a two-party system. I believe it can do so only to the extent that the coalitions behave like parties (as the Conservative-Liberal Unionist coalition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did in the UK). Seconda Repubblica style coalitions are unstable and tend to lead to situations where the tail wags the dog. The very fact that extremist parties of all hues end up being incorporated and legitimized is, I think, a bad thing in itself. It would be much better, in my humble opinion, if their voters are recruited by the moderate parties, who would take whatever legitimate interests they may have into account in order to acquire and keep their support.
I think that the arguments against a pure PR system, in particular, are extremely strong. Such a system does not guarantee that electors will have a genuine choice between potential governments. They would be able to affect the performance of individual parties but the formation of a government would be in the hands of coalition-brokers. In many cases, the result is that most governments include the same centrist party (or two) plus one or more of the others. Combined with a party-list system (as it often is) the result is that the electors can choose neither their individual represenatives nor their government.
A pure first-past-the-post sytem, while having lots of advantages, does not offer the electorate the same freedom in choosing their individual representatives that our STV system does. In our system, the parties don't just present you with one candidate, take it or leave it. Moreover, there are no real 'safe seats' even if you're running in one of your party's strongholds, because you can always be defeated by a rival from your own party. Indeed, on an individual candidate level the competition in our elections is between candidates from the same party. An added advantage is that, rather than wasting their last few votes, the electors of the other party can also have a small say in choosing the last of the other party's successful candidates, as I pointed out here. In other words, your vote counts, as it should.
Nor, as I argued last Saturday, does the system exclude third parties. If the electorate wants one badly enough, it can always get it, even through second and lower preferences (although this would normally require explicit cooperation between parties). Indeed, I view this as the only possible chink in the system's armour. I would be much happier if there were a threshold (say 7-10%) for a party to have representatives in Parliament, even if they can elect candidates from the individual districts. This would not lock out genuinely popular movements but would keep the fringe where it belongs.
Indeed, for all its faults, I think that our system is one of the best of those I have studied. This may not exactly have come about by design, but it is so nevertheless. I believe that the poor quality of our politicians may be attributable not to the system itself but to the fact that we're probably not the most sophisticated group of electors on the planet.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Headless Chickens

One of our MEPs, David Casa, wrote an interesting piece on 25th January which I hadn't read until my attention was drawn to it by a letter in yesterday's Times by Karm Farrugia, who appears to find the two following points ridiculous:
1. "Despite the fact that people are living longer due to amelioration in our lives, fewer children are being born".
2. "As history has shown, there has never been economic growth without a growth in population."
While those points could have been phrased a little bit more accurately, I find that they do reflect two important realities:
1. While our total population figures appear to be stable (and are even growing slightly), this is mainly due to the fact that people are living longer. It does not change the fact that birth rates are falling rapidly. It will take some decades until this is reflected fully in terms of bottom-line population figures. For the next few years it will take the relatively harmless form of a higher average age. Still, the fact that a headless chicken continues to run doesn't mean that it's heading for a long and healthy life.
2. A serious demographic crunch would obviously have economic consequences - in terms of loss of economies of scale, among other things. This would interfere with our standard of living, even after the 'aging population' phase is over. I doubt if serious growth in GDP per capita could take place while the economy is contracting in absolute terms. And the potential economic consequences are, in my humble opinion, almost insignificant in comparison to the political ones.
So while Carm Farrugia has every right to amuse himself, and while David Casa's articles could do with some improvement, nothing changes the fact that we have a serious problem to address. The Government has already taken some feeble steps in the right direction but I doubt whether these alone will make any impression on the problem.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Joys of Multiculturalism

For a number of years now, it has been apparent that 'multiculturalism', like most policies that do not take reality into account, simply does not work. If any further proof of this was needed, a new survey published by Policy Exchange has shown that young Muslims are even less integrated than their parents and are actually becoming increasingly hostile to the civilization that has welcomed them in its midst.
The basic premise of multiculturalism is that cultures, if allowed to live separately within the same society, will necessarily respect each other. Unfortunately, this depends on cultures concerned. If they happen to be very tolerant then it may just work. If one of them happens not to be then it won't. Moreover, the heroic attempt at getting whole cultures accepted into a host society means that the individuals concerned can only be accepted if the whole experiment works. If it fails, as it almost always does, then these individuals have to pay the price too, in terms of remaining strangers in their adoptive country. The almost inevitable result of this trauma is political extremism - sometimes fascism - particularly when this is easily available as a component of the culture of the countries of origin.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Electoral System

The electoral laws, like those relating to marriage and rent, keep cropping up in the local political debate from time to time, even though significant developments usually occur only about once a decade.
With the recent agreement between the main political parties regarding the the electoral laws, and the talk about Josie Muscat being about to launch a new political party, the issue of what political system will work best in Malta has returned to the fore (see, for example, Fausto's posts here and here and this week's article in The Times by Alternattiva's Secretary-General) and I'd like to give my 2-cents' worth on the subject at greater 'length' than I have done already here on this blog.
In this post I'll start with what I view to be the basic origin of the 2-party system (basically why a semi-PR system is functioning like a first-past-the-post system), and then in later posts I plan to compare the electoral system with the possible alternatives and finally to give my views on the actual actors.
In Malta's case, the two-party system developed as a result of two basic facts. The first was the electoral system, which could actually handle three or four sizeable parties (or small regional ones). The small size of the island and the absence of strong regional identities (outside Gozo, which is after all, only one district) has meant that only sizeable national parties could survive in the longer term. As for national parties, while the system could indeed handle more than two, it nevertheless creates a virtually insurmountable barrier to entry for new parties and ensures a quick exit for parties in decline. With the exception of pre-WWII Labour, most successful third parties since 1921 have either been regional (the Gozo Party, the Jones Party and, to some extent, the Partito Democratico Nazionalista of 1921), or else splits from, or remnants of, the main parties (the MWP, the PĦN, Ganado's PDN and Mabel Strickland's PCP). The DAP are the only exceptions and they existed only briefly during the early post-war years, when the parties of the former 'semi-duopoly', the PN and the CP had been temporarily knocked out by World War II and the death of Lord Strickland respectively.
The second, and more important, reason for the present situation was the Labour Party. Until WWII, the system had not resulted in a clear 2-party system. However, with the extension of the franchise, the creation of the GWU and the sudden disappearance of the Constitutionals, the Labour Party became far stronger than all the other parties combined. Their natural support remained in the region of 55-60% well into the 1950s. Following Mintoff's take-over, the party also moved further to the left than it had ever been before and at that stage was having difficulty tolerating other points of view on the island. So, the perceived issue for non-Labourites for the next 40 years (at least) became how to avoid a one-party system. Fine distinctions between two-party and multi-party systems were not foremost in people's minds. The PN grew gradually to become the mass party it is today only in response to the Labour Party's strength. Indeed, I have no doubt that were the Labour Party to disappear tomorrow, the Nationalist Party would find it extremely difficult to hold itself together.
If the two parties appear to resemble each other, it is mainly because one of them exists to counterbalance the other. The system is a duopoly in a technical sense but I feel that the label 'MLPN' is misleading if it is taken to mean that the two parties habitually act in concert or are 'one party masquerading as two' as a friend of mine once put it. It is, on the contrary, an intensely competitive duopoly and one in which only one of the competitors has a truly independent existence as a mass party.
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