Voting Intelligently
Published June 6th 2004 in The Times of Malta

One very encouraging result from the public opinion survey we are publishing today is that 85 per cent of respondents said they intend to vote in Saturday's election of five members of the European Parliament. Another 7.7 per cent were still undecided, while 7.3 per cent said they did not intend to vote.

In this, at least, tiny Malta could set an example to the other 24 member states by registering what will probably be the highest voter turnout in the European Union. A high turnout of course indicates a high political awareness, if not, perhaps, enthusiasm for the EU.

But Saturday's election is also going to be a first in Malta's history on a number of counts: it is the first to elect five Maltese to a supranational parliament; it is the first in which Malta and Gozo form a single constituency; it is also the first national election since 1987 where the extra "weighting" given to the No.1 vote after the Constitution was amended will not apply.

This last characteristic is very important, because it restores the full power of the single transferable vote to what it was before 1987, namely it does not give extra (and determining) weighting to the first preference expressed by the voter; each preference will have equal validity.

Of course all 27 candidates (including 10 independents) are vying for the No. 1 vote, but the absence of the 50 per cent-plus-one constraint means that voters can express their preferences for all 27 if they want to without fearing that they would thereby jeopardise the formation of a government by the party they support or risk electing a party they would least like to see in power.

Indeed, if electors vote intelligently enough, they can decide, by expressing their preferences, even which of the candidates of the party they do not support are elected.

Saturday's vote is to elect five candidates to represent Malta and Gozo in the EU parliament which among other things determines the size and composition of the Union's budget, and therefore of Malta's share in it. It will also have an increasing say in matters which will affect ordinary citizens' daily lives.

An important consideration in voting for our candidates is how well equipped they are - in terms of knowledge of EU affairs, enthusiasm for the cause of European unity, a certain experience in politics and parliamentary life, and above all, their reliability to promote Malta's interests within the context of the wider European whole. They should, in other words, be candidates who would do us proud.

A number of candidates fit the bill. Apart from the independents or so-called parties formed for the occasion, the three established political parties all claim to have chosen the best candidates. The particular circumstances of this election make it possible, in fact, to vote for the best individuals of all parties and of all candidates - in order of preference, naturally.

The Nationalist Party justifiably claims that it has devoted years and years of hard work, investing a lot of single-minded determination, to successfully take Malta into Europe, and that it would therefore simply be an act of historical justice to have as many as possible of its candidates elected to the European Parliament.

According to our survey, at least 36.5 per cent of those interviewed agree. But, judging from the large number of those who would not say how they intend to vote - 31.4 per cent - it seems that others are arguing that since this election will not determine who will run the country, they would either vote for another party or in some way 'punish' the Nationalist government for any sins of omission or commission.

The government is determined to tackle the budget deficit and has introduced much-needed reforms in money-losing state enterprises like the shipyards, PBS, Air Malta and Gozo Channel, besides slashing government expenditure to the tune of Lm10 million. These are not exactly popular measures, but they are necessary, if only to avoid taking even more painful measures later on. Will the electorate go along?

The Labour Party is trying to convince voters that its vehement opposition to EU membership has now given way to a grudging realisation that Malta is in the EU to stay and that the MLP is determined to make the most of the new opportunities while minimising any disadvantages. Will it be persuasive enough?

On the other hand, Alternattiva Demokratika has always strongly supported Malta's EU membership; its argument is that with Arnold Cassola in the Europarliament, and thus in a position to influence a third political grouping, Malta would be better able to safeguard its interests. In our survey, at least nine per cent seem to think so.