This article was publiched in The Mal;ta Independent on Sunday - 20th April 2014
Some old graffiti on the wall of the underpass by the University reads “People get the government they deserve”. This is a 19th-century quote attributed to Alexis de Toqueville (1805-1859), a French political thinker and historian, who had qualified it with the prefix “in a democracy”.
Indeed they do, and I have always been amazed by the collective wisdom of our electorate; a collective wisdom that overrides the stupidity, hypocrisy, irrationality and selfishness of voters at ground level.
I remember each and every election since 1962, and the collective wisdom of the outcome of every election is impressive – especially judged through the wisdom of hindsight.
Two general trends emerge from the results of the 12 general elections held since 1962:
The first observable trend is that a government is generally elected for two terms and only in extraordinary or abnormal circumstances will the electorate change the government after one term, or confirm it for more than two.
Secondly, governments that do not complete their term and resign mid-term are punished by the electorate for failing to carry out the mandate that they had been privileged to receive.
There was a departure from the trend of two-term governments in the elections of 1962, 1981, 1998 and 2008.
In 1962, the electorate's will was thwarted by the interference of the Church through the imposition of mortal sin for anyone who voted Labour. But the electorate was also influenced by the fact that Labour had prematurely resigned in 1958. With these two elements working against Labour, the PN strolled into government in that election.
In 1981, the electorate, in its collective wisdom, voted for change but the margin was not strong enough to overcome the defects in our electoral system at the time, where votes did not have equal weight in all districts. The fact that Labour governed with a majority of parliamentary seats on a minority of votes does not alter the fact that the electorate’s wish for change was clearly expressed in that election. Perhaps 1981 was an exception to prove the graffiti rule.
In 1998, the electorate was forced to depart from the two-term principle because of the early renunciation of the clear mandate it had given Alfred Sant’s Labour in 1996, when the electorate had honoured the two-term principle to the surprise of many political observers who had practically counted Labour out.
Even though Sant probably was left with no feasible alternative but to seek a fresh mandate, and history already judges him as having honoured the sovereignty of the electorate once he could not execute the mandate with which they had entrusted him, when it came to re-awarding the mandate the electorate could not it trust it again in the hands of someone who could not execute it. A mandate with an 8,000 vote majority was changed by a 20,000 vote swing giving a 12,000 vote majority to the PN Opposition.
The elections of 2003 and 2008 were very particular as they had to follow a mandate given in 1996, which had to be aborted in 1998 after less than two years. So it was not clear whether the electorate would consider the two-term cycle as having started anew in 1998 or whether, having punished Alfred Sant for giving up his mandate early in that year, would forgive and vote for a continuation of the mandate it had given in 1996.
That would have been a very important aspect to observe in the 2003 election, had it been a normal election. However, that election was anything but normal. Through a grave political miscalculation, Alfred Sant forced the electorate’s hand to reject Labour for the fourth time in five elections when he rendered the election as an outright exclusive choice between EU membership and a Labour government.
In the election of 2008, the EU issue was dead and buried and Malta had not only been a member of the EU since 2004, but had become further entrenched through membership of the euro monetary system which, as the Greek experience shows, operates like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you want but you can never leave.
Through normal electoral trends, those elections should have gone Labour’s way, once the PN had completed a double two legislature terms broken only by a short interlude of Sant’s 1996-1998 Labour government. How can one therefore explain the break from trend again in 2008 when, rather than winning handsomely, Labour lost narrowly again, giving the PN an unusual third consecutive term that broke new ground in post-war political history?
My view is that Labour could have won the 2008 election handsomely under any leader other than Alfred Sant. Sant forced the electorate’s hand again to keep Labour out of government if that meant he would be Prime Minister. Sant’s strong anti-EU record did not chime well with the collective wisdom of an electorate determined to make a success of Malta’s irreversible status within the EU.
Fate works in a strange way. The third consecutive failure by Alfred Sant to regain the premiership in 2008 has guided him to his true role in Maltese politics, as a left-leaning Euro-sceptic MEP who can keep the establishment on its toes through piercing criticism and pragmatic analysis. It has also delivered to the PL a young leader who has written history in showing that his election as an MEP in 2004 was a springboard to his true role as a national leader. In 2014, Sant and Muscat will reverse the roles they occupied – or to which they aspired – a decade earlier. Labour looks in a much better formation that way: square pegs in square holes.
With the 2013 election, the electoral trend has reverted to normality, with the outsized majority explainable by the departure from the trend in the previous three elections. Labour support that had been suppressed was suddenly released as soon as Labour presented itself for verification under Muscat’s guidance.
How will the trend operate for the forthcoming MEP election? Dr Sant will probably break the record for first-count votes, as his former leader legacy will focus Labour’s vote on his candidacy. But Labour will struggle to retain a majority of votes. Governments normally have to accept poor showings in mid -term secondary electoral tests. You can’t please them all, certainly not in 14 months, and people have a right to protest with their feet by staying away or with their hands by voting against the incumbent government. But it’s better to accept a protest when it hurts the least so as to re-group and peak when it really matters.
But nothing changes the fact that people get the government they deserve. For its collective wisdom, the Maltese electorate deserves a lot.