Legislative elections were held in Malta on March 9, 2013. All seats in Malta’s unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives (Kamra tad-Deputati) were up for reelection. The House consists of at least 65 members elected by single transferable vote (STV) in 13 constituencies which return five members each. However, the STV system is modified to ensure that the party which wins the most votes also receives the most seats. In the last election, for example, the party which placed second in the popular vote actually won more seats than the party which won the election, so four additional seats were given to the first-placed party to ensure that it also had the most seats. A 2007 amendment added another modification to the STV system, to ensure proportionality is respected in the case that a party wins an absolute majority of votes and seats. The amendments award additional seats to the second-placed party if their seat count is disproportionate to their popular vote result.
Although Malta uses STV, it has a very rigid two-party system since 1971. Partisanship is very high in Malta and voters remain impressively loyal to their party. As a result, Maltese elections tend to have some of the highest turnout levels in the world (outside countries with mandatory voting): turnout was 93% in the last general election (and that was the lowest since 1971!). Elections are always closely fought between the two major parties; the 2008 election was won by about 1000 votes out of nearly 300,000 votes, and the losing party rarely wins less than 47% of the vote.
The two dominant parties of Maltese politics are the governing Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista, PN) and the opposition Maltese Labour Party (Partit Laburista, MLP/PL). Both parties were founded when Malta was still under British rule.
The PN was originally founded in 1880 and adopted its current name in 1926. The PN was founded by Maltese Italians who opposed Britain’s efforts to Anglicize the educational and judicial system; at the time the PN was founded, Italian was widely spoken on the island and was the language of the local Maltese elite. After Malta was granted responsible government in 1921, the PN emerged victorious in the 1921, 1924 and 1927 elections. At this time, the PN represented the pro-Italian (often pro-fascist) faction in Maltese colonial politics; it was also closely tied to and supported by the Roman Catholic Church, which was (and to a degree still is) extremely powerful in Malta, a very religious and conservative country. The British, fearing the pro-Italian and pro-fascist sympathies of the Maltese elites and the PN, stepped in and suspended self-rule in 1933. Responsible government was restored only in 1947.
The Labour Party was founded in 1921, closely tied to the General Workers Union (GWU). The party was the junior party in a progressive ‘Compact’ government with the stridently pro-British Constitutional Party between 1927 and 1932, a government marked by a bitter dispute with the Catholic Church which resulted in the Church issuing an interdict against both parties. The MLP became dominant only in the post-war era, emerging with a large majority in the 1947 election just as the PN was still licking its wounds from the damage the war had inflicted on it. However, the MLP – led by Prime Minister Paul Boffa – went through a major split in 1950, with Boffa leaving the MLP after a dispute with his Deputy Prime Minister, the fiery Dom Mintoff. In these conditions, the PN returned to power in 1950 and was reelected by tiny margins in 1951 and 1953.
Dom Mintoff’s Labour Party won the 1955 elections on a platform of ‘integration’ into the United Kingdom, whereby Malta would be granted a devolved status similar to that of the United Kingdom but elect MPs to Westminster and have access to economic aid and social benefits. The United Kingdom was originally open to the idea, but it either soured on it or lost interest as the process dragged on. Although Maltese voters actually endorsed integration in a 1956 referendum, a Nationalist boycott and low turnout (59%) rendered the result inconclusive. Now, faced with opposition from London, the PN and the Church, Mintoff changed course and swore to fight for Malta’s full independence and neutrality. Following dismissals at the Admiralty dockyards, Mintoff and the GWU’s power base, Mintoff resigned in 1958 and called for protests. Britain responded by suspending self-rule again, restoring it in 1962.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to Mintoff and Labour – the party was interdicted between 1961 and 1964 and reading or selling party newspapers was deemed a mortal sin – allowed the PN to win the 1962 and 1966 elections. During this period, Malta signed a military agreement with Britain and became a NATO base. In 1964, the PN negotiated independence for Malta – as a member of the Commonwealth retaining the Queen as head of state and a British Governor General. Despite formal independence, British influence remained pervasive in banking, communications, the military and government.
Having patched up ties – for the time being – with the Catholic Church, Mintoff returned to power in 1971 with a bare one-seat edge over the PN (28 vs 27 seats). Mintoff was a fiery, pugnacious and strong-willed leader who was able to play off world powers against one another to ensure the independence and neutrality of his small island nation. He quickly scrapped the defense agreement, expelled the NATO commander and charged the British and Americans for the use of military facilities in Malta. Mintoff also courted Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and communist China, but also allowed the Soviet Union to store naval fuel in Malta and he received aid from Italy. He was able to play to all sides in the Cold War, in return for recognition of Maltese neutrality.
Domestically, Mintoff transformed Malta into a moden and advanced welfare state – imitating the British model. He declared Malta a republic within the Commonwealth in 1974, nationalized a number of key enterprises, expanded the public sector and implemented major social reforms including gender equality, civil marriage and the decriminalization of homosexuality and adultery. Mintoff was reelected in 1976 and in 1981 (despite the PN winning the popular vote in 1981), but characteristically for Maltese politics, he never had a solid parliamentary majority. His opponents claimed that he was an autocratic strongman who stayed in power through gerrymandering, bullying opponents, patronage and even physical bullying at the polls by his supporters.
In his last term in office, Mintoff picked a fight with the Catholic Church – aiming to wrestle control of education and healthcare away from the Church. He closed down two religious private hospitals and threatened to close down the Church’s 70 or so private schools if they did not abolish tuition fees. Mintoff resigned in 1984, and the PN returned to power in the 1987 election.
The PN government under Edward Fenech Adami, which ruled between 1987 and 1992, liberalized the economy, led a pro-European and pro-Western policy and advocated Maltese membership in the European Union. Labour opposed EU membership. When Labour’s Alfred Sant won the 1996 elections, it froze Malta’s EU application. But Sant’s government, which held a one-seat majority in Parliament, only lasted 22 months. In 1998, Mintoff – still an influential backbencher who was scheming behind Sant’s back – voted against the government on a matter of confidence and eventually brought down the short-lived Labour government. The PN returned to power in 1998 and reopened EU membership talks.
In March 2003, a referendum on EU membership was held. Of all EU membership referendums held in 2003 before the big enlargement in 2004, the Maltese vote was the only one which wasn’t a slam dunk for the pro-EU option. The Labour Party and Mintoff actively campaigned against membership, and only 54% voted in favour of membership. Because less than half of eligible voters had actually voted in favour, Labour compelled the PN to seek a mandate from voters in a snap election. The PN was returned with 35 seats against 30 for Labour, a comfortable majority by local standards. Adami was replaced by Lawrence Gonzi in 2004. In the last election in 2008, Gonzi and the PN were reelected but by a margin of only 1,580 votes.
Gonzi’s government was brought down in December 2012 when a PN dissident broke ranks and voted against the government’s budget, which meant that the government lost confidence and was forced to resign.
The PN and Labour have some ideological differences – on issues such as taxation or government intervention – but they tend to be broadly similar. While it was Eurosceptic until 2004, Labour has since made its peace with the European Union and does not advocate any Eurosceptic positions. Malta as a whole is one of the most socially conservative countries in Europe – divorce was officially illegal until 2011 and abortion remains illegal in all cases (one of the strictest abortion laws in the world) – and the PN has usually tended to be to the right of Labour on social/moral issues (Gonzi opposed the new law on divorce, supported by 53% of voters in a 2011 referendum), but even that might be changing given that both parties openly support civil unions for same-sex couples and anti-discrimination legislation.
Prime Minister Gonzi is running on his economic record, stating that he has ensured economic stability and job creation in Malta despite the global economic crisis. Indeed, Malta is performing well within the EU. Its deficit is now under the EU’s 3% limit, unemployment is low at 6% and the economy is projected to grow by 2% in 2013 (it grew by 1.2% in 2012). The only potential issues are the high public debt (71% of GDP) and a recent downgrade in its credit rating (from A- to BBB+ by Standard and Poor’s). Gonzi’s government lowered taxes, and campaigns on more tax cuts (including the income tax and property tax). Labour, led since 2008 by the 39-year old Joseph Muscat, does not have markedly different policies; it focuses on increasing women’s participation in the labour force and reducing electricity costs by 25% by building a new power station. It also promises to cut taxes and reduces ‘wasteful’ public spending.
The traditional third party is the green Democratic Alternative (AD), which has generally won about 1% in general elections although it managed a spectacular 9% in the 2004 European elections. It supports a higher minimum wage, gay marriage, drug legalization and campaign finance legislation (Malta is one of the few EU countries with no campaign finance laws).
Turnout was about 93%, sky high in any other country but fairly low by Maltese standards. The results were as follows:
Labour 54.83% (+6.04%) winning 39 seats (+5)
PN 43.34% (-6.00%) winning 30 seats (-5)
AD 1.8% (+0.49%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Others 0.03% (-0.53%) winning 0 seats (nc)
It was a massive landslide for the opposition Labour Party, which won the popular vote by 11.5% and with a 35,000 vote margin over the governing PN. Maltese elections, since the 1970s, have always been closely fought battles – the 1992 election, in which Labour won 46.5% of the vote, was considered as a PN landslide by Maltese standards. Both parties usually have a loyal, highly motivated and reliable electorate which provides them with a very high floor (but also limits them to a low ceiling); there are few voters, and elections are determined by who drives out their voters the best or manages transfers in STV most efficiently. This year, however, was different. This was the largest victory for any single party since the 1955 election – when Malta was still a British colony and at a time when the party system fluctuated more. In 1955, Labour won 56.7% against 40% for the PN. The 6% swing against the governing party this year was huge. It was not just a case of Labour holding its vote, because its raw vote total increased from 141.8k in 2008 to 167.5k this year, while the PN fell from 143.4k votes in 2008 to 132.4k this year. Polls before the election had showed that at least 8-10% of the PN’s 2008 voters were planning to vote Labour, with an additional 12-15% still undecided at the time. Labour also had a comfortable lead with first-time voters.
Malta’s economy, by EU standards, is doing fairly well and the issues which feature prominently in elections in all other EU countries today (austerity, debts and deficits, unemployment) did not really play a large role in this campaign. The PN was the victim, first and foremost, of voter fatigue. The party has been in power uninterrupted since 1998 (15 years) and for 24 years in the past 26 years since 1987. In that time, especially since 2008, there was a perception that the PN had grown complacent, disconnected/out of touch and even corrupt because of all those years in powers. The government’s decision to raise its own salaries was unpopular, as it came in the middle of the economic crisis. There have also been a number of corruption cases, including a major case involving oil procurement. The government’s recent attempt to hand over management of the island’s public transport system to a German operator was very unpopular, in fact it was the factor which caused the PN rebel to vote against the budget and bring down the government in December. High utility prices, particularly for electricity, also hurt the government.
Labour, under its young leader Joseph Muscat, has become far more appealing and less polarizing than it had been in the past. It dropped one of its major disagreements with the PN (European integration) by shifting away from its past Euroscepticism; it has also reached out to Malta’s business community. Muscat also campaigned on a relatively centrist platform, which hit all the right notes for the electorate: fighting corruption, cutting electricity prices by 25%, lowering income taxes, controlling government spending and reducing the deficit. Given the broad similarities with the PN (which focused primarily on tax cuts), it is not hard to see why a substantial number of PN supporters voted Labour this year.
In the 13 STV districts, Labour won 39 seats to the PN’s 26 seats. The PN was hurt by its terrible job at transfer management, given that Labour won the most seats (3 vs 2) in two districts – 8 (Birkirkara) and 13 (Gozo) – where the PN actually won the most votes. The 2007 amendment to ensure proportionality kicked in, as this article explains. Because Labour’s 39 members were elected with an average of 4,295 votes when the PN’s 26 members were elected with an average of 5,093 votes; the PN found itself entitled to receive four additional seats (the formula used is dividing the PN’s total first preference votes by the lowest average – Labour’s 4,295 – to get 30.8, or an additional 4.8 seats from the PN’s 26 – rounded down because the constitution says the Parliament must have a odd number of seats). The perennially unsuccessful third party, AD, has complained about the ‘perversion’ of this system because their vote count (5,506) is much higher average worked out to ensure proportionality for the two big parties – yet they will have no seats. A Labour MP now supports a constitutional amendment to grant AD parliamentary representation.
Here is a map of Labour and PN’s first pref results by district (see also: first pref winner by district, STV seats by party). There is a clean and clear geographic divide. Labour won 71% in District 2, and over 66% in the three other southern districts – Districts 3, 4 and 5. The second district covers Labour’s birthplace and heartland on the docklands south of Valletta, the capital. The south of the island also seems to be working-class areas. The PN’s best district was District 10, an affluent and residential/touristy area north of Valletta.
Malta’s election signals a major change in leadership, with Labour winning power for the first time since Malta joined the EU and later the Eurozone. As a small country in the wider EU, it is not a particularly significant election; and even domestically, given Labour’s platform and its ideological proximity with the PN, it will not signal a major departure from the former government.