It is time to recognise that, united, the Maltese electorate can achieve much more than individually. And the mechanism which enables them to do so is already in place.
by Raisa Galea
Image: still from Malta Today video
On Sunday 4th June 2017, a day after the snap general election, I stood by the window, watching the crowd cheering outside. This was the second time I witnessed the post-election euphoria and although it did not leave me as astonished as the first time, it still evoked strong and mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the celebrations fascinated me: Compared to the growing apathy towards representative democracy and the plummeting voter turnout in many countries across the globe, the enthusiasm of the Maltese Labour supporters was truly impressive. On the other hand, set against the backdrop of the continuous onslaught on ODZ land and public open space, the mayhem of overdevelopment and the high-profile corruption scandals, that ecstatic extravaganza resembled a feast in time of plague. I could not escape a sense of deep hopelessness it provoked.
For a couple of days the country turned into a red-washed street party and a live-show of red-draped cars, loud horn-beeping and jubilant slogans. The sensation of triumph was palpable—a truly unique experience for anyone who spent most of their lives outside of Malta. Such is the way to celebrate a major life event or the Word Cup trophy.
A vote is a voucher of power. If invested carefully, it can yield a few advantages.
Although large factions of the Maltese support their party with a fervour of devoted football fans, the reasons for their loyalty are more pragmatic than fanaticism. In a small country like Malta, where everyone is a handshake away from the Prime Minister, the proximity to power has advantages. Unlike a large country, where the majority of voters seldom see any positive outcome of their ballot, a vote in Malta has a potential to transform into something tangible.
A vote is a voucher of power. If invested carefully, it can yield a few advantages. A family which is large enough and whose members reside in the same district is capable of influencing the voting outcome and hence can count on a few benefits if their preferred candidate is elected to Parliament.
Although this mechanism of exchanging votes for favours is rightly criticised as clientelism, it holds a potential for emancipation, despite its indisputable flaws. To those coming from a humble social background (and whose individual and collective interests are constantly sidelined in larger countries), a vote can be a source of empowerment, a way to bargain with politicians to better themselves. Hence, casting a vote in Malta is not an abstract performance of a citizen’s duty but an event capable of making a direct impact on the voter’s life—a circumstance that the majority of regular Brits, French, Germans or Russians are unfamiliar with. It is the awareness of their vote’s power that keeps the Maltese so enthusiastic about election outcomes.*
But the advantages of such an electoral system are only a part of the story. If a vote is the currency of power, its value lies in what it can be exchanged for—which is, at the end of the day, a question of priorities and considerations of each voter. A vote may be cast in return for a job, a contract, legal or medical support (no surprise that lawyers and medical doctors make the most successful candidates) or in gratitude for the past favours, but the benefits always come at a price—loyalty to the favour-dispatching party.
The disadvantage of this tokenism to society at large is staggering. By being tempted to prioritise immediate (and minor) individual favours, the majority of voters give up the pressing long-term interests they have in common.
How long will the effect of a job offer or a promotion last in time of escalating cost of living?
How long will the effect of a job offer or a promotion last in time of escalating cost of living? Will a minor hand-out from a candidate secure a decent housing for the majority of young voters? Unlikely. How helpful is it to the festa clubs to be paid a lip service, given a few t-shirts and donations, if the encroaching urbanisation threatens their firing sites and, thus, the very existence of the festa? Besides, the stream of opportunities for individual or family bargaining with politicians is drying up as we speak: transacting a vote for a job or a promotion will be ever trickier, since the government increasingly relies on private contractors.
But if it can no longer yield considerable and lasting advantages, does it mean that the value of a vote will diminish? To the contrary. While it is becoming more difficult for an individual to exchange a vote for opportunities, the power of an organised group remains solid.
Whereas in a large country a faction of electorate as small as few hundred is a mere drop in the ocean, in Malta this number might be large enough to make a lobby group. It only takes voters to recognise mutual interests and unite to protect themselves. Standing up to the ripple effect of overbuilding, staggering increase in rent and property prices, air pollution and traffic jams is in the majority’s best interest, since few can escape the negative impact of these developments in a country as small and densely populated as Malta.
While it is becoming more difficult for an individual to exchange a vote for opportunities, the power of an organised group remains solid.
Ultimately, it is about demanding more, not less. It is time to recognise that, united, the Maltese electorate can achieve much more than individually. And the mechanism which enables them to do so is already in place: Politicians here remember very well where their endorsement comes from.
I often hear criticism of the government’s complacency towards boathouses’ owners, hunters or its unwillingness to clamp on the use of private cars. The most common complaint is that the parties are “too afraid to lose votes”, which implies that these groups would respond to unfavourable treatment by withdrawing their support. Rather than lamenting the influence these factions wield over government’s decision, the rest of us should follow their example. In order to protect a few remaining open spaces, secure a decent minimum wage and succeed in demanding a regulation of the property market, the lobby groups must be united, organised, uncompromising and outnumber their opponents.
Organised collective lobbying can succeed in setting up decent standards of living, which will eliminate the humiliating need to bargain for favours in exchange for loyalty.
If all those willing to prioritise the common interests over immediate short-term favours join forces, they have a great potential to wrest power away from developers and property speculators. They can succeed in setting up decent standards of living, which will eliminate the humiliating need to bargain for favours in exchange for loyalty.
“But this will never happen!”, one might say. “The Maltese are too selfish”, will say another. I beg to differ.
Certainly, protecting common interests requires democratic mobilisation based on solidarity, but this can (and hopefully, will) happen. The sprouts of such a mobilisation are already here, thanks to the communities who put environment and lifestyle at the core of their priorities. The successful resistance that Żejtun residents put up to protect Bulebel from development, the thousands of signatures Pembroke residents collected to halt the high-rise monstrosity on the former ITS site and the mass support for the Moviment Graffitti’s protest against petrol stations on ODZ land all point at a tremendous potential for an organised movement.
There is nothing Maltese voters cannot achieve collectively, if only they are willing to stand united.
Due to the feedback suggesting that a few sentences could be interpreted as an apology for clientelism—which certainly was not the intention of this article—they were edited to eliminate a possibility for such an interpretation.
*The original sentence read “Although this mechanism of exchanging votes for favours is often criticised as clientelism, it certainly has an emancipating potential. To those coming from a humble social background (and whose individual and collective interests are constantly sidelined in larger countries), a vote can be a source of empowerment, a way to bargain with politicians to better themselves. Hence, casting a vote in Malta is not an abstract performance of a citizen’s duty but an event capable of making a direct impact on the voter’s life—an advantage that the majority of regular Brits, French, Germans or Russians are deprived of. It is the awareness of their vote’s power that keeps the Maltese so enthusiastic about election outcomes.“