Malta is currently one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to female representation in Parliament, but this is about to change if a novel law comes into effect.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat yesterday unveiled detailed plans to boost the number of women politicians, arguing that he was not proposing ‘gender quotas’ per se, but rather a 20-year shock to the system, after which people will start voting for women more organically.
The proposal is spread over a 68-page policy document but is quite complicated, so we’re going to break it down based on the results of the 2017 general election.
1. Count the women elected ‘normally’
Firstly, the ‘gender corrective mechanism’ will only be activated if the current electoral process sees the under-represented sex (which in Malta’s current case would be women) obtain fewer than 40% of the seats. This will be capped at a maximum of 12 seats, which will be equally divided between the PL and the PN.
This mechanism will automatically be scrapped the moment a third party manages to get elected to Parliament without its candidates having contested the election on the ballot sheet of a large party.
Only 10 out of the 67 MPs elected in 2017 election were women, meaning 28 women would have to be added to bring about a 60-40 balance in the House. The capped maximum of 12 seats will therefore kick in, giving PL and PN six extra women MPs each.
2. Look at the ‘wasted votes’
The first women to be elected will be from among the ‘hanging candidates’, i.e. the best of the worst of each district after the five candidates have been elected.
In 2017, the runners-up of District 4 and District 13 Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Frederick Azzopardi were elected to Parliament by virtue of the corrective mechanism to ensure proportional parliamentary representation between the political parties.
The hanging candidate of District 6 was Rosianne Cutajar, but she was elected through a casual election and no unelected women PL candidates were left on that district.
Former Nationalist MP Paula Mifsud Bonnici and former Labour MP Deborah Schembri finished as runners-up on District 1 and District 12 respectively, meaning both would have returned to Parliament.
3. Hold casual elections
Casual elections will then be held in the eight remaining districts for the wasted votes of the male hanging candidates; four from the PL and four from the PN.
This is how it would have worked out:
District 2 (PN): Josie Muscat’s wasted votes would have triggered a casual election between nursing manager Mary Bezzina and primary school teacher Doris Borg. Borg obtained 136 first-count votes in 2013 while Bezzina obtained a mere 36, but her dominant rank on the electoral list means she could have benefited from donkey voting.
District 3 (PN): This would have been a race between Żejtun councillor Amanda Abela, Mary Bezzina and Catherine Farrugia, the latter who forms part of Partit Demokratiku but who ran on the PN ballot as part of the ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ coalition.
Abela would have been the clear favourite, having won 481 first-count votes, ahead of Bezzina’s 72 and Farrugia’s 103.
District 5 (PL): The gender corrective mechanism would have been brilliant news for political newcomer Rita Sammut. With 20 votes, she obtained fewer first-count votes than any other candidate on that district, but would have automatically been elected to Parliament by virtue of having been the only unelected woman candidate.
District 7 (PN): This would have been an interesting one. The two unelected PN candidates on this district were Monique Agius, back then a PD communications officer, and St Paul’s Bay councillor Dounia Borg.
Agius obtained 76 first-count votes to Borg’s 34, meaning Agius could well have been elected. However, she has since resigned from PD, meaning Parliament could have had an independent MP.
District 8 (PL): Another district without a contest. Lawyer Rachel Tua was the only unelected PL woman candidate on the list and would therefore have been automatically elected.
District 9 (PL): Yet another district without a contest and yet again it’s a PL candidate who would have benefitted, this time Nikita Zammit Alamango, president of the Nisa Laburisti branch.
District 10 (PN): This would have been a race between four women – Gżira councillor Graziella Attard Previ, MEP candidate Roselyn Borg Knight, Naxxar mayor Anne Marie Muscat Fenech Adami and the late Pembroke councillor Evelyn Vella Brincat. Attard Previ and Borg Knight both performed admirably two years ago, meaning one of them could well have won a seat through the gender mechanism.
District 11 (PL): This would have officially been a race between Deborah Schembri, Rachel Tua and MEP candidate Fleur Vella. However, as Schembri would have already got elected through District 12 and Tua through District 8, Vella, who obtained 75 first-count votes, would have likely gone uncontested.
Therefore, Labour would have elected Deborah Schembri, Rita Sammut, Rachel Tua, Nikita Zammit Alamango and Fleur Vella, and would have had room to co-opt a sixth MP from the list of unelected candidates, the only available option of whom would have been Davinia Sammut Hili.
PN would have elected Paula Mifsud Bonnici, and possibly also Doris Borg, Amanda Abela, Monique Agius, and either Roselyn Borg Knight or Graziella Attard Previ, with room to co-opt a sixth MP too.
The ball is now in the PN’s court…
This system will require the approval of the Nationalist Party, whose leader Adrian Delia has shown scepticism about gender quotas in the past. In a recent interview with Lovin Malta, Delia warned that a quota system contradicts with the rights given to people who identify as non-binary and risks sending across a message that women need political discrimination in order to succeed.
Asked for the party’s take on the proposal, a PN spokesperson welcomed the proposal in principle but said it must analyse it in detail before taking an official stance.
“The PN is truly concerned at how much Maltese women have slipped in international equality rankings in recent years, and believes women should form an integral part of our society,” the spokesperson said. “The PN is currently studying the policy document in detail so that it can add value to this discussion in favour of greater participation of women.”
However, PN executive president Mark Anthony Sammut warned that the system could be a “dangerous slope” for democracy. In a Facebook post, he noted that both men and women exhibited a similar probability of election in 2017, with 15% of all female candidates elected, compared to 19% of men candidates.
Contrarily, 50% of female candidates and 8% of men candidates were elected to the European Parliament in the last MEP election.
“Clearly, the problem with female under-representation in Parliament is not because of lower opportunities or voter prejudice,” Sammut said. “It is simply the lack of female candidates. Engineering the results of democratic representation is a dangerous slope we should avoid, especially since no other attempts at increasing female candidature – which is the root cause of the problem – have yet been made.”
PN deputy leader Robert Arrigo described Sammut’s analysis as interesting, adding that “all other groups” will be discriminated against.