Some of the most prominent rituals of Maltese politics are the regular fundraising activities that the two main political parties organise on weekends through their radio and television stations. This year was no exception. With a general election drying the coffers of the Labour and Nationalist parties earlier in the year both major parties organised fundraising activities on the same day in the run-up to Christmas.
The parties raised about €1.23 million almost in equal shares. The PN leadership saw this record contribution by the party faithful as a sure sign that many lost sheep are returning to the fold. The PL was equally happy and “thanked their supporters for their generosity”.
Many political and social analysts take a different view. They ask relevant questions that need to be answered by the major political parties if people’s faith in politics and democracy is to strengthen.
According to the German Centre for Economic Statistics (CESifo) Malta and Switzerland are the only two European countries that have no public financing system for political parties. Many ordinary people would argue this is rightly so as political parties should not use taxpayers’ money to fund their often bloated administrative setups and, in the case of Malta, their struggling radio and TV stations.
Others are equally convinced that if political parties are not financed transparently by public funds, they may succumb to particular pressures of wealthy interest groups and individuals who attempt to influence party behaviour in exchange for financial support. Few can challenge the reality that even in a democratic system the electorate can develop the expectation that politicians will only be too glad to buy their vote with promises as elections loom.
In many developed countries, political parties have set up independent electoral commissions and parliamentary ethics committees to police party financing. The effectiveness of these watchdogs depends on the commitment of the main political parties and the electorate to more ethical behaviour. This commitment is often weak or non-existent.
It is a worrying reality that parties in power often abuse their access to State resources, putting the opposition parties at a substantial disadvantage. This practice is what the power of incumbency is all about. Some sociologists argue that Malta’s high participation rate in general elections is linked to the electorate’s belief that they have a better bargaining power to procure legitimate and illegitimate favours if the politicians they support are in government.
There are solutions to reduce patronage in political life. Regulations that limit the amount of money parties may receive from wealthy individuals or businesses, bans of foreign donations and more extensive disclosures need to be enforced by an Electoral Commission that is truly autonomous and free from political interference.
Public financing of political parties will be more widely supported by the electorate if the parties start to divest of their loss-making investment in radio and TV stations and let the national broadcaster serve as a genuinely independent medium of communication.
Parliamentary democracy will only flourish fully when all political parties are supportive and respect the autonomy of the Electoral Commission and the national broadcaster.
It is only when these bodies take on the role of defenders of democratic values by promoting true transparency will the political system improve.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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