Sunday mornings may be associated with big-name political interview programmes, but perhaps not the declaration of an election result. Nonetheless, that was exactly what the people of Malta woke up to on Sunday 27th March – with Labour declaring their third successive victory not long after the votes of Saturday’s election began to be counted.
It may have been the first parliamentary election since the voting age was lowered to 16, but the foregone conclusion of a result and uneventful campaign led to turnout slipping to just 86% – the lowest since independence from the UK in 1964 (UK turnout in 2019 was 67.3%). Nonetheless, we thought we’d take a look at the rather unique politics and voting system of the small Mediterranean island.
The Voting System
The Maltese Parliament has been elected using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) since 1921. Today, 65 representatives are elected in 13 constituencies of five members each. Voters rank individual candidates (1, 2, 3, etc.) and are able to rank as many or as few as they like.
Counting works as per a standard STV election. To win a seat, a candidate needs a set number of votes, if your favourite candidate has enough your vote can be used to elect your second favourite, and so on. If no candidates are elected in that round of counting, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and votes for them move to the voter’s next choice. This continues until all seats have been filled.
One element that is unusual for an STV election is the possibility of bonus seats. These have their origin in the extremely close 1981 election which saw Labour win the most seats, even though the Nationalists won 4142 more votes (something that has also happened multiple times with first past the post). From the following election, additional seats could be added to ensure that the party which won the most votes had a majority of at least one seat. Since 2007, this has changed to up to four bonus seats for the party that is most underrepresented. At the last election, the Nationalists were awarded two bonus seats this way.
This will be the first parliamentary election to take place since the voting age was lowered to 16.
Parties and Government
Malta is notable for being one of the few western democracies to have a pure two-party system – with all seats being won by either the Labour Party or the Nationalist Party since 1962 (though two members of the liberal Democratic Party won seats in 2017 by standing with the Nationalists). No third party has won more than 2% of votes since the Christian Workers’ Party in 1966.
The Labour Party is nominally a centre-left social democratic party, though it is economically to the right of the rest of the S&D grouping in the European Parliament – with the current leadership emphasising their pro-business leanings and broader economic liberalism.
Labour are currently in a position of dominance in Maltese politics – having been in power since 2013 and winning the last two elections by a margin of more than 10% in the popular vote. When Joseph Muscat, the leader that oversaw the first two victories, had to resign as Prime Minister in 2020 over a significant scandal, many thought a third victory was unlikely. But his successor, Robert Abela, has not just secured a third landslide, but the highest vote share for any party since independence.
Unlike Labour, the opposition Nationalist Party is very normal for its Europarty – holding the centre-right economic and social views that are standard for the EPP. But it is currently a shadow of its former self. Before 2013, it had governed for all but two of the previous 26 years. Today, it sees a declining vote share while in opposition and hasn’t led in a single poll since 2014 – even at the height of government scandals.
A long stay in opposition shouldn’t be particularly surprising though. Governments in post-independence Malta have been exclusively single-party majorities, typically with long periods between alternation of power. But unlike some countries where single-party government is the norm, nearly all single-party majorities in Malta have been ‘earned majorities’, i.e. supported by the majority of voters, rather than ‘manufactured’ by a biased voting system.
Find out more about the Single Transferable Vote