Over the past few weeks, the Prime Minister spoke several times about the need to introduce gender quotas to mitigate the lack of women elected in Parliament. Last weekend, the matter was also addressed by the President of the Republic and, again, on Tuesday in newspaper articles.
The introduction of quotas in general elections would require the support of both political parties represented in Parliament. This surely cannot be done unless discussions and public consultations are held.
We are now just months away from a general election and, certainly, this is not the right time to discuss matters that are connected to the electoral system. Such discussions should be held just after an election not before, so that the political parties would have ample time to discuss the matter internally.
The issue of gender quotas is also not the only topic that should be discussed among parties. In fact, I think that it is the least of our electoral system’s problems.
Let me be clear from the outset. I would like to see more women in Parliament but our system – the single transferable vote system – is not to blame for the low representation of women in the House. Academic studies, including mine, confirm that, when nominated, women fare as well as men in elections.
The same studies establish that there exist no voters’ bias against women either. We had women who won seats in two districts and others who were elected on the first count. In the last European Parliament election, the same electoral system returned four MEPs out of six.
So where does the problem lie?
The problem is that the political parties are failing to attract a sufficient number of women to stand for elections. It is not the parties’ fault. Most qualified women simply do not want to enter the political realm even though they are very qualified and possess the necessary attributes.
This country needs to seriously consider scrapping the prevailing electoral system and introduce a closed-party list
Those who are persuaded to stand for an election are not as persistent as men. Most unsuccessful women candidates do not contest the following election. Furthermore, it is very difficult to find unsuccessful women candidates to run for more than two elections. In a country where incumbency plays an important role in re-election, one would have to be patient to win a parliamentary seat.
While I understand the statements made by both the Prime Minister and the President, I strongly believe that the discussions about our electoral system need to be conducted holistically. There are other important and pressing matters which need to be addressed.
One such matter is clientelism. How can we eradicate it or, at least, minimise it? Is the electoral system to blame for the widespread clientelism? The answer is yes.
Our system puts candidates of the same party in competition against each other. Candidates coming from the same political party cannot distinguish themselves from their party colleagues on policy matters. They, therefore, have to attract the electorate by other means. Making themselves available and being present in a community’s life is one way.
An unspecified number (which, I believe, is substantial) of Maltese electors vote on personal matters. The candidate, the member of Parliament or the Cabinet minister who delivers the beef is likely to win the first preference vote.
If this country would like to control clientelism it needs to seriously consider scrapping the prevailing electoral system altogether and introduce a closed-party list model. This system would enable the political parties to compile a list of candidates and win as many seats in the House of Representatives as their percentage of the national vote would allow.
In this event, we would not need 13 electoral districts because Malta would be made up of just one district, as happens in the European Parliament elections.
The parties could even announce the composition of their prospective Cabinet before an election. Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament would represent the whole nation and not just the electoral division from where the candidate is elected. Electoral candidates would then not be required to compete against their party colleagues.
On their part, the political parties would be able to attract formidable candidates and technocrats, including able women who, given the system of intra-party competition now in place, would never dream of contesting.
I know that mine is not a suggestion that would go down well with everyone because the list system would take the power of those who are ultimately elected from the hands of the voters and place it in the hands of the parties’ elites, thus giving rise to a new set of problems for the political parties. But, then, different electoral systems produce different consequences and outcomes.
The electoral system we have now is fostering clientelism, especially in the run-up to elections. The latest news that the Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister, Konrad Mizzi, recruited 150 employees in the Water Services Corporation, most of who hail from the fourth district, which he contests, is a case in point.
There are many issues connected to the electoral system that need to be addressed, including women representation. The point is that such matters cannot be discussed in haste during an election year. The months and weeks preceding a general election should be a time for evaluating the government’s performance and its broken promises as well as analysing the Opposition’s proposals for the next legislature and beyond.
When the time is right we can discuss electoral reform. But, then again, it should not be just about women quotas.
Hermann Schiavone is a PN candidate and political analyst.