18 May 2005

The Web

Commission has final say

James Debono

The Nationalist Party could end up outflanked by the Malta Labour Party on the issue of the revision of electoral borders because Article 61 of the Maltese Constitution states that the Electoral Commission has the final say as regards the revision of the electoral boundaries.
This would put greater pressure on the PN to return to the negotiating table on electoral reform after these talks were cancelled by the PN following declarations made by the opposition leader in favour of a five per cent threshold.
Contacted yesterday MLP Secretary General Jason Micallef confirmed that talks on electoral reform are still stalled and no date has been set for their continuation.
If agreement is not reached between the PN and MLP representatives on the Commission, the Chief Electoral Commissioner will have the final say.
The Electoral Commission’s report was signed by the Chief Electoral Commission and the four MLP representatives and opposed by the four PN representatives, who presented a minority report.

If the Chief Electoral Commissioner persists in agreeing with the MLP’s representatives on the Commission, the electoral districts will be changed in such a way, which is considered unacceptable by the PN.
In the meantime pressure on the Chief Electoral Commissioner is mounting.
An editorial on Monday’s edition of In-Nazzjon singled out Chief Commissioner Degabriele for criticism. “It is astonishing that the Chief Commissioner is approving changes which are a photocopy of changes he had opposed five years ago.”
On Thursday the same organ of the Nationalist Party attacked Degabriele for “committing the same heresies seen in the 1976, 1981 and 1987 elections.”
The Malta Financial and Business Times tried to contact the Chief Electoral Commissioner for his comments but his office said that he was not talking to the media.
In terms of the Constitution, “the House may, by resolution, either approve the alteration or refer it back to the Commission for reconsideration.”
But that is the only power given to parliament by the Constitution on this important matter.
On Monday the Prime Minister gave notice of a motion for Parliament to refer the report on changes to the electoral boundaries back to the Electoral Commission.

The next step
The Electoral Commission is not obliged to make any new proposals. It can simply keep insisting on its original proposal.
The Constitution is very clear on this point:
“If the alteration is referred back to the Commission, upon the expiration of two months from such reference, the Chief Electoral Commissioner shall cause the alteration to be published in the gazette either in its original form or, if it has been modified by the Commission, as so modified.”
If the Electoral Commission decides to ignore parliament and keeps insisting on its original proposals, the PN would be cornered.
In its reaction to the Commission’s report the PN said that had the last general election been held on the basis of the boundaries being proposed by the Commission, there would have been a repeat of the “perverse result of 1981 in which the Nationalist Party got the majority of votes but a minority of seats in Parliament.”
This signals a dramatic reversal of fortunes. In the mid nineties, when electoral districts were radically changed, the MLP insisted it was a victim of gerrymandering.
Back than the MLP complained that the locality of Zabbar had been divided thus strengthening the PN’s position in the second district.

Uncomfortable one seat
During the past two elections, the PN has enjoyed a comfortable five-seat majority. On the other hand in 1996 when the MLP won the general election with a 7,000 vote majority, it still ended up with a minority of seats. The constitutional mechanism giving a majority to the party gaining more than 50 per cent was put into action enabling Alfred Sant to govern with an uncomfortable one seat majority. This led to his demise.
The PN has criticised the Commission’s report for taking in consideration trends shown by the electorate in local elections since 2003. It also criticised the Commission for ignoring the criteria of geographic vicinity and territorial integrity of localities.
The whole issue of gerrymandering would become irrelevant if the country’s electoral laws are changed to ensure full proportionality between the number of seats and the number of votes obtained.



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