‘Europe Elects’, a polling aggregate service, expressed its surprise this week when an ostensibly social democrat party bucked a Europe-wide trend of dwindling support for the centre-left. On tiny Malta, a social democrat party had quietly shot past two-thirds of the popular vote, according to a poll published on Sunday.
You don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer to see how unilateral support of the House of Representatives amounting to two-thirds of seats would render the entrenchment mechanisms for constitutional amendments completely ineffective. Changing the Constitution requires a qualified majority. In theory, that requires broad popular support to safeguard the institutions from demagoguery.
Last Sunday’s survey extends no favour to those mechanisms. Should the Labour Party unilaterally secure two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, its united MPs can distort Malta’s legal and political order and still be within the law. That doesn’t bode well for democracy.
Why isn’t there widespread panic? There are good reasons for not taking polls too seriously, albeit the fact that they really do capture a fairly accurate image of the political climate, thanks to statistics. Certain factors can explain the surge now, but this article will argue that we may heading to an election very soon.
During emergencies, like in wartime, there is an uptick in nationalistic support. Apparently, existential threats on an international scale tend to make populations ‘rally ‘round the flag’, producing stronger support for the incumbency, even if temporarily.
This happened with the emergency declared because of the novel coronavirus, broadly everywhere bar one notable exception. Trump was seen to have botched his response when the US was ahead of Europe. His administration is now burdened with a death count comparable to Italy’s in triplicate.
On the other hand, Malta fared well in this crisis. While most of us were locked indoors, inundated with news of rocketing death counts and heart-breaking testimonies, we had the luxury of regretting only 7 inconsolable deaths locally.
PM Abela could be basking in a short-term boost in popular opinion when surveys give the Labour party 69% of the vote, not accounting for a significant percentage of the population who is undecided. Barely six months into Abela’s mandate, nobody would be expecting an election and would answer a survey accordingly.
And yet there are rumours an election could be held as early as October.
Having an election just to cash in on a short-term boost in popular opinion is not very convincing. The rally-round-the-flag effect needs to be adapted from Mueller’s 1970 definition, but a key takeaway is that support is not traditionally long-lasting. An election would arguably challenge that uptick.
Why have an election?
Economists argue that the single best indicator of a successful electoral bid is a strong economy. Joseph Muscat certainly benefitted politically. Abela faces a gloomier outlook. If Malta was hit now, it will be worse next year for our service-based economy when surrounding nations struggle to cope.
An election in October would mitigate some of the effects of an economic depression on Robert Abela’s ratings and secure enough time to hopefully see the economy recover by the end of his term.
An election could do two more things for Robert personally and for the Labour Party generally. Firstly, it will secure a healthy mandate for Malta’s most important bodybuilder, whose legitimacy as Prime Minister relies on an internal election, not a general one.
Secondly, it would ratify any constitutional reforms that the Government proposes now. There isn’t sufficient political opposition to have a meaningful say in the constitutional debate. The Government has made it clear it is reluctant to limit its power and outside of a non-binding opinion by the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, it faces little reason to do so.
A possible scenario to play out is that the Government goes to an election with a package of mainly cosmetic reforms and secures the popular support irrespective of what is proposed. It would likely deter further criticism of our institutions and ward off international scrutiny of an inadequately protected Constitution. But with the current mechanisms, two-thirds should only set off alarms.
What do you make of this argument?
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