The Labour Party has received a formal complaint on alleged tampering in the vote to elect a new party leader, calling for a formal investigation.
Party sources told Times of Malta that an incident at the Labour Party headquarters, in Ħamrun, on New Year’s Eve sparked concerns that one of the two candidates in the leadership race was meddling with the official register of those eligible to vote.
However, sources close to the party said the issue was being blown out of proportion and cast doubts on the claims.
On Saturday, thousands of paid-up Labour members will vote for either Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne or Cabinet adviser Robert Abela as the two enter the final stretch of the race to take over from outgoing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
According to the complaint filed by Dr Abela on Sunday morning, the door to an office at the party headquarters, where the list of paid-up party members is kept, was locked shut at about 12.50pm on December 31 though the lights inside were on.
Inside the office were three of Mr Fearne’s canvassers, all of whom employed at his ministry in Valletta, who, Dr Abela said, were allegedly inputting details for about 200 party supporters who had fallen behind in their membership fees. This, the complaint noted, would ensure these members would be eligible to vote on Saturday.
The letter raises questions over whether this was an isolated incident since these people had been caught red-handed by chance.
“The logical question that arises is what other similar abuse has taken place in these sensitive days,” the letter adds.
I am disgusted with my own party
“The thousands of genuine party members do not deserve to have their choice of party leader and prime minister go through an electoral process that has been vitiated and manipulated in order to give a perverse result,” it says.
Sources close to Dr Abela said he was insisting that none of the 200 names should be added to the list.
“This was clearly an attempt to compromise the entire electoral process. I am disgusted with my own party,” one source said. The letter calls for a thorough investigation that will include evidence by witnesses and examination of CCTV footage.
Scepticism about claims
Sources said both candidates had previously agreed with the party’s electoral commission to present a list of members who had fallen behind on their membership fees. While Mr Fearne had compiled about 200 names, Dr Abela had listed fewer than 20, they said.
“We had agreed on this process beforehand, now someone isn’t happy because they didn’t get as many names – tough luck,” a source said.
A member of the electoral commission cast doubts on the claims that the election was being tampered with but was reluctant to get between the two candidates.
“Don’t get me involved in any of this mess. All I’ll say is this is all nonsense at a time when we should be focusing on what really matters,” he said. Sources said the matter had been discussed by the party executive and the electoral commission over the weekend, adding an “amicable solution” had been reached between representatives of the two candidates.
This solution would see party officials shred the list of 200 members that had been presented by Mr Fearne’s representatives.
These members would then be contacted individually by the party with officials deciding whether to add them to the list of eligible voters or not.
It appears this arrangement did not go down well with Dr Abela who decided to submit a complaint and asked for the matter to be discussed further.
The last time Labour had voted for a leader, a similar complaint of interference had been made by Dr Abela’s father, President Emeritus George Abela.
The former deputy leader had lost out in that race that saw Dr Muscat elected to the helm of the party.
Labour CEO says tampering 'not possible'
Labour CEO Randolph Debattista dismissed the vote tampering claims and said that both candidates running for leader knew very well just how robust the party's electoral system was.
"Last year, we invested thousands in a new membership system that's full of checks and balances to prevent anyone from manipulating it," he wrote on Facebook.
Mr Debattista said the allegations were especially concerning because they cast workers at the party's headquarters in a bad light.
"And let's say it as it is," he added, "whoever is elected will have to work with them".
PL spokesman reacts
A spokesman for the PL said its electoral commission has always communicated its official positions or replies to the person raising an issue or presenting an official compliant throughout the electoral process.
“The electoral process which will lead to the election of a new leader has numerous checks and balances and is being conducted with close collaboration with the candidates representatives as well as the candidates themselves,” he said.
While a number of issues were tackled along the way, the electoral commission can assure that the process is being conducted in a fair and diligent manner and that all data processing in relation to the eligibility of voters has been handled in line with the party statute and all regulations agreed to by the parties concerned, he added.