Why PR has failed in Malta?

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Hon Dr M. De Cesare, M.A., M.D., BSc, MLA

Our distinguished correspondent is a Labour Member of the Maltese Parliament living in a country where PR has been in operation for several decades; he speaks with first-hand knowledge about this system of voting which has been the subject of much controversy these last few months. We commend this article to our Government and to our politicians of all shades of opinion.

It is matter of much interest to me to know that in Mauritius opinions seem to be divided on the merits of Proportional Representation (PR) as a method of election. The interest to me lies in the fact that much the same is happening in Malta. As in the case of Mauritius, the Malta Labour Party under the dynamic leadership of Mr Dom Mintoff, is against PR and is in fact insisting with the British Government that this system should be abolished and the Scrutin de Liste system introduced instead. The conservative parties — the Nationalist Party now in opposition and the Progressive Constitutional Party (with no representative in the present Parliament), on the other hand proclaim the benefits of PR. No one as yet knows what kind of system will be adopted when the next election becomes due sometime this year — an election on which will depend whether the Integration proposal will be accepted by the people of Malta or not.

Be this as it may, is it a coincidence that Labour opinion in Malta and Mauritius is the same with regard to PR? It is a rather curious fact that in these two colonies the Labour parties are both against this system whilst the conservative parties are in favour of its maintenance or introduction.

Having used this system of election since 1921 when Malta was first given a form of Self-Government, what have we, Maltese, to say about this system?

The exponents of this system invariably harp on the fact that this system secures representation to minorities large enough to secure the necessary quota. And this is about all that can be said for this system. In practice, however, even this admitted advantage generally produces a state of affairs where it is difficult for the country to have a stable government. When two parties contest an election it makes little difference what system is adopted but when you have minority parties, as we recently had in Malta, it is indeed difficult for one party to be able to form a stable government without either having outside support by the minority parties or by forming a coalition. And, of course, Coalition Governments and Minority Government can hardly be described as stable governments.

On more than one occasion since 1950 we, here in Malta, have cursed this system for the country was burdened by the expense of having no less than four elections within a period of four years. With this system it has taken the present Labour Party five years before it succeeded in forming a stable government and under a different leader it would probably have taken the Party much longer to have attained its object. The so-called representatives of the minorities in the country — and in practice this means that the smaller parties will have at the most one representative each — generally dictate the type of Government the country will have when, as often happens, the two main parties are of equal strength, for without their support neither of the two main parties will be in a position to form any kind of Government. Is it fair, one may ask the exponent of the PR system, that a small number of minorities should be given much power?

Under a different system when there is a straight fight between the various representatives of the various parties, no such possibilities are likely to occur. When all is said and done, it is far better for the country to have a stable government even if the minorities are not represented than to have no government at all. And there can be no doubt that as long as the formation of a government depends on outside support, there is little likelihood of the country having an effective ruling body. This has happened to us here (in Malta) since 1950 following the Labour split. In 1949 when the so-called Boffa Group left the Part,y this group continued to function with the outside support of a small party for a few months though not without paying a heavy price for such support.

In September 1950, the Boffa Government was defeated on a budget vote because one member of the supporting party, not having obtained what he desired, voted against the Government. In the ensuing election, with the two Labour groups securing 11 seats each, a minority government was formed by the Nationalist Party who had secured 12 seats. This Government had the outside support of the Boffa section of the Labour Party. But, as is to be expected, this minority government did not last long so that a second election took place a year later. This time the Nationalist Party obtained 15 seats, the Workers’ Party (Boffa) 7 seats and the Labour Party (Mintoff) 14 seats. There was also one Independent and 3 members representing a small party called the Constitutional Party. A coalition government was formed between the Nationalist and the Boffa Group with a bare majority of one member.

Needless to say this Government did not last long so that within a few months yet a third election had to be held. With the Labour Party obtaining 18 seats, the Nationalist Party 17, Boffa’s 4 and the Constitutional Party 1, a second coalition government was to be expected — for the Labour Party under Mintoff very rightly held that it could not function as a Government if his party had to depend on the support of any other party whose principles were so different. This Coalition Government met the same fate as the previous one so that in Feb. 1955 yet a fourth election had to be held. This time the Labour Party succeeded in obtaining a good working majority having secured 23 seats. This only happened because of the withdrawal from the political scene of the Boffa Group so that with the exception of, what we here call the Phantom party (the Progressive Constitutional Party), the election was contested by two main groups, the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party. The Phantom Party failed to secure a single seat — hence its appellation.

The inactivity of the consecutive governments from 1950 up to February of 1955 when the Labour Party was elected to power had to be seen to be believed. During these four years of inactivity the country had a government only in name. And things could hardly have been otherwise when the party with the majority of seats had to rely on the support of other parties and Independents whose views and outlook were so much at variance. We, here in Malta, are convinced that Malta could have been spared the unnecessary expensed of having to pay for four elections which it could ill afford, to say nothing of four years of inactivity, if the electoral system had not been the PR system.

Whatever the ideal electoral system may be, the PR one should have no place in a country where there is marked illiteracy. It does not speak highly of Colonial Administration when one admits that in Malta there is still a great deal of illiteracy. Now that under Labour Government there is full-time compulsory (and free) education, the future generation will be catered for in this field. But this does not and cannot compensate for the older generation in which illiteracy is so marked. To this fairly substantial section of the population the voting system under PR is a veritable nightmare for it is most confusing for the illiterate voter to have to insert a second, third, fourth and so on names after the first. Hundreds of illiterate voters — mostly Labour supporters — are rendered invalid because of this confusion. Hundreds more keep away from the polls, not because they do not wish to vote but because of the complicated system which exists under PR.

On this point alone, if for no other reason, the Labour Party in Mauritius is being very wise in opposing PR as an electoral system, for what is true in Malta will, certainly, be more so in Mauritius where presumably the illiterate class is so much greater.

One must almost not forget that under the PR system it is difficult, if not impossible, for the candidates of the same party to work together for the common interest. And this is not difficult to understand. When there are 5 candidates or more of the same party contesting the same seats in the same district, it is not surprising that election fever runs so high that you have 5 candidates running each other down, in private if not in public, in an attempt to eliminate opposition. Much bad blood exists at such times between the candidates of the same Party which does good neither to the candidates nor to the Party itself. This argument is neither here nor there as far as the country’s welfare is concerned but on this point at least all parties are agreed, namely that the PR system cannot possibly encourage a concentration of effort which is possible only under the “straight fight” system.

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019

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