A victory for both parties
The most important local news last week was the sentence handed down by our Constitutional Court of Appeal.
Dr Simon Mercieca is senior lecturer, Department of History
The Nationalist Party was allocated two additional seats in Parliament to make good for a mistake in the counting of votes on two electoral districts. I am delighted that the Labour Government has accepted this verdict. This kills all political discourse that the PL does not respect court rulings. It also becomes more difficult for Labour’s political opponents to make any political analogy with the pre-1987 Labour Government.
In all fairness, it should be stated that the PN is to blame for this situation because its counting agents were not careful enough during the counting of votes on the eighth and the thirteenth district. Had they been meticulous, such an electoral error could have been avoided and Malta would have been spared this political saga.
On the other hand, I am dismayed with this court sentence. In Maltese there is a phrase that is quite appropriate and this is “sentenza bażwija” or a muddled decree. I agree with the Labour Party declaration saying that this sentence has created a very serious precedent that could lead to abuse. However, my reasons differ from those given by the Labour Party. Unequivocally, this sentence confirms that democracy is just a political system. Both Parties have gained out of this sentence.
I agree with Labour that it is not justifiable that the Nationalist Party gets two more deputies. Nonetheless, the error committed had to be rectified. In truth, the PN should not have two more deputies. In reality, Labour should have two less. This would have been the real parliamentary representation had the votes been counted correctly on these two districts. The PN has now salvaged its two unelected deputies thanks to this counting mistake because of the internal mechanism existing in our electoral system, which guarantees our main parties a fair representation in Parliament according to the number of the votes that they obtained in election. Thus, the number of PN deputies reflects the number of votes that it got in the last election. The number of Labour deputies does not reflect that result.
The Constitutional Court of Appeal confirmed the sentence given in May when the PN was granted two more deputies. This means that we, as citizens, will be paying for two additional deputies from our taxes when in reality these two should not be in Parliament.
In a normal Western democracy, when these cases of human errors occur, the Courts or the Electoral Commission orders a recount on those districts hit by such slip-ups. In which case the sentence would have been on these lines. The court/electoral commission would have cancelled the electoral result on the district in questions and ordered a recount. Perhaps, one could rightly argue that such a sentence could have led to legal and electoral complications. Yet, these legal complications are the result of court cases in Malta dragging on for months and years. This case was no exception. As Labour was in the wrong, its lawyers had every interest to put spokes in the wheel to procrastinate and delay judgment.
Possibly, our Courts could have avoided such a draconian sentence and annulled the electoral result because, in the meantime, there were deputies elected on the eighth district who had also been elected on another district. Our system requires that these deputies should drop one of their districts and by-election would then take place. Cancelling the result might have even affected byelections on the eighth district. Annulling the result would therefore complicate matters as those deputies who kept that district would lose, temporarily, their seat but there is no doubt that these deputies would have been re-elected in the recount and this scenario would not have resulted. Moreover, such instances confirm the need for rapid and quick sentences by our courts.
This explains why the Court went for this rather strange verdict of adding two seats to the PN. Had the Court ordered a recount, the PN would have kept the number of deputies it has at the moment but Labour would have lost two deputies. Therefore, contrary to what is being stated, this is not a sentence in favour of the PN but one favouring both parties. The PN is happy with this judgment because it gives the Party two more deputies. Labour should also be pleased since it did not lose two of its deputies.
In all probability, had the Court annulled the electoral result in question, Labour would have lost Parliamentary Secretary Justyne Caruana and deputy Joe Debono Grech. It was thanks to this counting mistake on the 13th District that Justyne Caruana was elected. Edward Scicluna was elected on the eighth district but as he was also elected on another district, he dropped this district and Joe Debono Grech was elected instead. In truth, Claudette Buttigieg should have been elected on the eighth district but Buttigieg still made it to Parliament as a result of the Constitutional amendments for a better political representation in Parliament. The same holds for the Nationalist MP Frederick Azzopardi. Caruana got elected instead of him. But both Buttigieg and Azzopardi, the Italians would say were “ripescati”; a term used in Italian politics for those deputies who fail to make it to parliament but still enter parliament because of electoral arrangements. The Gozo district and the eighth district, have now ended up with the surrealistic situation of having seven deputies, four for the PN and three for Labour. Normally, a district has only five deputies. This weakens the other districts’ representation in parliament.
This leads me to another observation. Many are asking why this happened. Besides the element of human error, there is the political mechanism behind our system. Our system allows the electorate to transfer its vote from one candidate to another without observing party lines, which means that the transfer of votes can be from one candidate of a party to another. This is known as the “single transferable vote”. What happened in the last elections, and in particular on these two districts, the way votes got transferred affected this result in favour of Labour. Since the votes were wrongly transferred, Labour ended up having an extra two deputies - one on each of the two said districts - when in reality these votes should have gone to the PN.
This is why I am insisting that the addition of two deputies does not reflect the votes obtained by the PN in this election. This Court sentence has spared Labour losing two of its deputies. The Court of Appeal has acknowledged that the PL stole two seats but instead of condemning Labour to return what it ‘stole’, the Court has now allowed the PN to do the same and steal two extra seats. This explains why I define this sentence as muddled.
Following this court verdict, Dr Busuttil invited his supporters to a mass rally at the PN headquarters. I agree with those who said that this rally was inappropriate and contrasts significantly with Labour’s calm decision to respect the Court’s verdict. One wonders why the PN found it expedient to call a mass rally. Unfortunately, Dr. Busuttil has ended up doing what Labour used to do when it had its back against the wall: calling mass rallies to boost its supporters’ morale. This only reflects political panic. This confirms that the new direction that the PN has embarked on that of embracing liberalism - is leaving the Party without a soul. There is now a certain detachment in its inner core. Images of the rally confirm the lukewarm atmosphere that reigned at Tal-Pieta’. The attendance was poor. Yet, the PN is still in time to make good choices by returning to its traditional values. Perhaps the election of these two deputies should be considered as a Godsend by the PN; it should help the party to re-discover its lost values.
The Malta Independent Monday 28 November 2016