Malta – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Malta joined the EU in 2004 and rapidly joined the Eurozone in 2008.

Malta is the smallest country in the EU, with a population of around 450,000. Malta has a smaller population than Manchester and at only 312 square kilometres (121 square miles) it is roughly the size of the Isle of Wight.

Malta is so small that it did not have local government until 1993.

Malta’s position in the Mediterranean, it is the most Southern EU country and lies parallel to Tunisia, means that it has historically been of strategic importance and that many Empires have ruled over the islands.

The country was a part of the British Empire until 1964, and remains a part of the Commonwealth, though the country became a Republic in 1974.

Malta has two official languages: English and Maltese. Maltese is a Semitic language, like Arabic and Hebrew, though there are many English and Italian loanwords. Maltese is said to be closest to the Arabic dialects spoken in Northern Africa.

Malta is officially Catholic, and has traditionally been one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries, though it is increasingly secular. Abortion is illegal in Malta, though in practice abortions have been carried out when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Divorce was illegal until 2011 (when only the Phillipines and Vatican City also banned abortion), when it was approved by referendum with 52.7% of voters voting in favour. In April 2014, Malta legalised civil partnerships for same-sex couples, and allowed them to adopt.

Malta’s European Commissioner, John Dalli, who was given the health brief on the Commission, caused some controversy in 2012, when an associate was accused of asking Swedish Match, a producer of chewable tobacco, for a bribe of €60 million in exchange for loosening tobacco restrictions. Dalli was subsequently forced to resign from the Commission. Dalli’s successor, Tonio Borg has also been controversial, due to his views on gay rights, having previously implied that homosexuals do not ‘deserve protection’ under Maltese law. Nonetheless he was appointed to his post.

Maltese politics is deeply polarised. Despite a relatively proportional electoral system, no parties other than the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party have been represented in the Maltese parliament since before independence. Even then, pre-independence third parties were usually formed of splinters from the Big 2. The 1.8% of the vote given to other parties in 2013 represented the highest amount of support for minor parties, in a national election, since 1966.

Political polarisation affects all avenues of public life in Malta. For instance, the Nationalists have accused Labour of giving preferential treatment to its supporters in hospitals. Whether this is true or not, it demonstrates the level of polarisation that this thought is even considered believable.

Political parties are also known to engage in patronage and nepotism in power. Polarisation is, however, conducive towards high turnout – turnout in Malta is the second highest in the world, with only Uruguay (which has compulsory voting) having a higher turnout. Turnout at the 2013 general election was 93.3%, low by Maltese standards.

In reality, the two parties are not particularly different ideologically anymore. As you might expect Labour is slightly more economically interventionist and the Nationalists tend to be more socially conservative, but the differences are ultimately rather slight.

Economically Malta is performing well. Its deficit is just 1.2%, well within EU limits; unemployment is relatively low at 6% and with the economy growing by around 2% a year. Nonetheless, the country’s economy is weaker than pre-2008 crisis, and the national debt, at 73% of GDP, is above the EU’s official limit of 60% (though lower than the Eurozone crisis economies). Malta is thus having some moderate cuts, though the government has been able to lower taxes lately.

However, an increasingly important issue in Malta is immigration. In the latest Eurobarometer survey Malta was the only country where respondents did not name an economic issue as the top issue facing their country, with 63% naming immigration as one of their top two issues. Malta’s position, small size and dense population means that it receives relatively large numbers of migrants from an increasingly unstable North Africa. Malta has seen its non-native population more than double in the last decade. Between 2008 and 2012 Malta received 21.7 asylum seeker applicants per 1,000 residents, the highest in the world. Malta’s current PM, Joseph Muscat (Labour) has labelled the degree of immigration ‘unsustainable’ and refers to it as the biggest wave of migration into any European country (in per capita terms). The Maltese government has considered a ‘push-back’ policy of pushing boats approaching from Libya back to the North African shore. This policy has already been ruled against by the European Court of Human Rights. Malta has recently kept illegal migrants who enter Malta in compulsory detention centres. This policy has also been ruled against by the European Court of Human Rights. The government has pressurised the EU and other EU countries to take up some of the slack but other European countries have only taken 700 of Malta’s arrivals (the US has taken a further 1,300).

While other member states have seen the rise of right-wing populist parties due to similar pressures, Malta has not, likely due to the strength of political polarisation and because Maltese governments, of both parties, have taken a strong stance on the issue and made clear that they need EU help to keep immigration numbers down. An attempt by a former Nationalist Party MP, Josie Muscat, to create a right-wing anti-immigration party came to nought as the party could not even win 1% of the vote.

Malta has a fairly poor record on gender representation. While Malta’s current President is a woman, only one member of the incumbent cabinet is a woman and Malta has yet to elect a single woman MEP, though there are high hopes for a couple of woman candidates this year.

Malta was historically a neutral, Eurosceptic country. In a referendum on joining the EU in 2003 the Maltese only voted in favour of EU membership by 53.6% to 46.4%, the lowest score of the nine referendums held on EU membership that year. The Labour Party campaigned heavily against EU membership. However, since joining the EU the Maltese have become much more pro-European and Labour has dropped its Euroscepticism.

Electoral System

As the smallest country in the EU, Malta is one of the three member states, along with Estonia and Luxembourg which elect the minimum number of MEPs – 6. Malta only elected 5 MEPs in 2009, but gained one through the Lisbon Treaty redistribution of seats.

Malta is one of three parts of the EU, along with Ireland and Northern Ireland, which do not use party-list proportional representation systems instead using the Single Transferable Vote system.

STV is a candidate centred proportional electoral system. In this system voters are given a list of candidates from all parties and independents and rank them. A quota is established, based on the number of votes and seats to be filled. If a candidate wins more votes than the quota then they are deemed elected. Additionally any votes over quota are redistributed to other candidates on the basis of their second, third, fourth etc. preferences. If no candidate is over quota then the worst performing candidate is eliminated from the count and their preferences are redistributed. This continues in a series of rounds until all seats are filled.

Voters, in theory, have the capability to cast preferences across political parties; a voter could theoretically give their first preference to a Labour candidate and their second to a Nationalist. In reality, however, Maltese political polarisation means that voters almost never do this and tend to just cast preferences for their favoured party. However, the ranking aspect of STV introduces an element of competition within the parties, with candidates needing to beat their own party colleagues to be elected.

The system therefore tends to act rather similarly to an open-list proportional representation system.

Turnout in Malta in 2009 was amongst the highest in the EU at 78.8%.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Labour Party (PL) Socialists and Democrats 54.8% 4
Nationalist Party (PN) European People’s Party 40.5% 2
Democratic Alternative (AD) European Green Party 2.3% 0

Likely results

Polls are rare in Malta. An unscientific voodoo poll by the website Malta Survey shows the PN on 50%, Labour on 46% and AD on 4% but to say that this polls methodology is unreliable is an understatement to say the least.

Nonetheless, the likeliest result is that the PN will climb back somewhat from its 2009 result, which was a mid-term protest against a government which had simply been in power too long for its own good. It is extremely unlikely that the PN will be able to equal Labour’s 2009 feat of taking four seats, and so it is likeliest that, whether the PN or Labour wins the popular vote, the two parties will be close enough to each other to win 3 seats a piece.