Sunday, 3 June 2001

e-government democracy

The Malta Independent on Sunday E-government democracy

Over 40 companies divided into 16 different consortia expressed their interest in engaging in a strategic partnership with the Maltese Government to attain an e-Government. Speaking at the official announcement of the companies that submitted their proposals, Justice and Local Government Minister Austin Gatt said he was honored to have received serious proposals from huge companies like Microsoft, KPMG, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Compaq. `Such companies would not have expressed their interest if they did not have great confidence in the Maltese Government`. At a time when tech companies are struggling to come to terms with industry` over-capacity it is small wonder that most big names would be interested in providing e-government solutions.` But what happened to this nation`s priorities`

It is` right that we dream, design and plan electronic solutions to the ordinary needs of citizens when they interact with government.` But must this take priority over the right of ordinary citizens in being given an integral electoral process ensuring that they would interact with a government which they have chosen democratically`

Whilst we pretend to have full democratic credentials yet it is an undeniable fact that in five out of the last nine elections the will of the electorate expressed through the ballot box has not been properly executed.

A walk down memory lane is essential.` The elections of 1962 and 19966 were flawed by the imposition of mortal sin on any voter who opted for Labour. Anyone under 40 would probably think that this is a joke but for those who lived through these times it still carries a bitter after taste.` Belatedly the local` church authorities had the courage to offer apologies to those who suffered this political discrimination, those you were denied ordinary church services because of their political beliefs. To those who were condemned to hell by mortals whilst the Eternal Almighty rewarded the honesty and generosity of their heart in holding on to the principles of social democracy.

It is indicative of the absence of true democratic credentials that the Nationalist Party, the principal beneficiary and overt supporter of this gross religious and undemocratic interference in the electoral process, never found the internal courage to emulate the Church Authoirties and publicly apoligise to the Maltese electorate.

The 1981 election again returned a result which was effectively a travesty of the real underlying will of the electorate. But at least the beneficiaries of such travesty had the decency to change the electoral process rules in a way which restored basic democracy to the subsequent results of the 1987 and 1996 elections. Without these changes the basic will of the electorate would have been denied also in the elections of 1987 and 1996.

The 1996 and 1998 elections also returned defective results. Tampering with district boundaries meant that a Labour majority of 2 seats in 1996 was effectively reduced to 1 whilst nationalist majority of 3 seats in 1998 was effectively increased to 5.

So in five out of the last elections the result did not mirror the honest and true democratic will of the electorate and in four out of these five occasions the` beneficiary was the Nationalist Party. In the only occasion when the system short-changed the Nationalist Party they rendered this country practically ungovernable through social boycotts and pacific and not so pacific resistance. It was the time when every week a bomb or other politically motivated crime occurred without the perpetrators ever being caught.

It is only the media support and effective PR skills which manage to hide these unquestionable facts and depict the Nationalist Party as the true defender of democracy.`

Now that we are past the half way mark of this legislature and the specter of new elections starts appearing on the horizon, now that we are living in the 21st century and that we are being promised the electronic solution of` e-government, I would have though that this country would never have to go through the agony again of having the opposition party claiming undemocratic tampering in the electoral process.

Yet what is the current situation The electoral boundaries which short-changed Labour in the elections of 1996 and 1998 have not only not been redressed but have been rendered more one-sided. If you need just one example just see the attachment of Mdina to the 7th district which was stripped off Qrendi. But more serious than that we have a situation where the supposedly autonomous Electoral Commission has lost control over the integrity of the electoral register.

How can a country planning e-government allow itself to get in this situation when it knows that elections here` are decided by a handful of votes and the electoral process must be accurate right to the farthest digit after the point` How can we have a situation when the majority of our identity cards, an indispensable link in the integrity of the electoral process, are long expired and we have no effective means to control the residency status of people on the register` How can we be generous with offering dual citizenship which opens the door to addition of thousands of new voters, if we don`t simultaneously introduce the mechanisms to ensure that the beneficiaries of such dual citizenship also pass the residency criteria which are linked to the right to vote`

Whilst e-government is essential and could one day itself be a solution to providing a fair and democratic electoral process, priorities demand that we find urgent, practical and real solutions to restore integrity to the basic rule of democracy ` the facility of the electorate to choose a government in a free fair and transparent manner.

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