Michael Falzon | Sunday, 18 January 2009

Sixth seat issue nonsense

Between 29 December and 9 January, Labour leader Joseph Muscat was grappling with the Prime Minister’s ‘offer he couldn’t refuse’ on the nomination of the next President – a shrewd cynical move that forced him to take a position that is directly against that of his former leader Alfred Sant and of his mentor, George Vella.
Considering what was going on behind the scenes, it is incredible how he had the temerity to write a piece in The Times (‘Timely political sixth sense’, January 8) about what should happen if Malta gets a sixth seat in the European Parliament after the electorate chooses five MEPs next June.
With the Prime Minister degrading the nomination of the Head of State into a cat-and-mouse political game between him and the Leader of the Opposition, Muscat went ahead and played by the new rules of the game, attacking the Prime Minister on a separate issue on the eve of his succumbing to the PM’s move.
Incidentally, Simon Busuttil’s rejoinder to Muscat’s piece was published last Wednesday, the same day MaltaToday reported that Busuttil disagreed with the PM’s choice for President. These goings-on have all the ingredients of a veritable Maltese kawlata!
Muscat is adamant that if and when the question of an additional EP seat arises, “the candidate who places de facto sixth in June's elections” should be Malta's sixth MEP “when and if the Lisbon Treaty finally comes into force.” Barring my intuitive explanation for the raising of this issue at this point in time, the only other reasons that make sense are that either Muscat is not sure that Labour will retain its three seats in the MEP elections, or that he wants to prop up a politically tottering Alternattiva Demokratika.
I think that a repeat of the result of the European Parliament elections – i.e. three PL and two PN members – is on the cards. Joseph Muscat cannot lose an election that Alfred Sant won. Yet a change in percentages of votes garnered by the two parties could be very indicative, even if there is no change in the distribution of seats. Labour has no hope in hell of obtaining four out of six seats, while it is in the happier position of being practically assured of three seats out of five – so long that it is in the Opposition, that is!
Muscat’s article, in fact, somewhat echoed a previous contribution in the same newspaper penned by Alternattiva Leader, Arnold Cassola (‘Sixth seat gymnastics’, December 24). The fact that Muscat wants to help Cassola’s second bid to become an MEP tells a lot about the backroom deals between Labour and Alternattiva. Obviously, Cassola seems to be resigned to again not making it in an election for five members.
In his article, Cassola accused the Prime Minister of putting “in doubt the Maltese people's right to indicate their sixth MEP preference as from the June elections.” He even attacked Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil for daring to say the obvious: i.e., that “once the Lisbon Treaty will not be in force by next June, when the next European Parliament elections are due, we will still be electing five members, not six”, recklessly alleging that such declarations “reveal a readiness to deprive the people of their democratic right to choose a sixth elected representative.” The mind boggles.
The mind boggles even more when one considers the mathematical basis of the system that we in Malta use to elect our representatives. In ‘our’ system, counting the votes in an election for five members is not the same as in an election for six members. In an election for five members the quota of votes needed for a candidate to be declared elected is one sixth plus one (equivalent to 16.67% of the total valid votes cast) while in an election for six members, the quota would be one seventh plus one (equivalent to 14.29%). This means that the candidate who is left unelected without being eliminated in a race for five seats is not necessarily the same one who would have been elected had the votes been distributed on the basis of a quota aimed at electing six seats.
Incidentally this also means that for a party to elect four out of six seats, it would have to end up with some 57.16% of the votes on a national scale – a feat that is beyond either of the two main political parties.
Considering previous howlers uttered by AD spokesmen on the workings of our electoral system, it could well be that the mathematics is beyond Arnold Cassola. I am sure, however, that in his party Joseph Muscat has enough advisors who realise the veracity of what I am saying.
All this is hypothetical: in case Malta gets the right for a sixth seat after having elected five members. Holding an election for six seats now when we will only be sending five members to Brussels would mean leaving a substantial percentage of voters (some 29%) unrepresented until the sixth ‘elected’ member gets his seat.
Surely, the right way to go about it – if and when this happens – is to look at the percentages of votes obtained by the different parties and see how many quotas would have been obtained if the counting of the votes had been based on a quota for six seats rather than for five. The actual transfer of first preference votes obtained by eliminated independent candidates would also be taken into consideration.
In a repeat of what happened five years ago, at the end of the counting process the ‘surplus’ votes of both PL and PN would have been transferred or declared ‘non-transferable’. However, if it comes to the theoretical transfer of the votes obtained by Alternattiva, the correct resolution of the problem would lie somewhere in the murky realm of guesswork. If Alternattiva does get a seat out of the five, there would be no problem at all: the sixth seat should go to the party with the largest amount of unutilised ‘surplus’ votes.
After all, the election result could give a clear indication of how the six seats would have been distributed if the vote counting was aimed at electing six candidates, in which case accusations and arguments would be avoided. Except for the ulterior motives construed by me at the beginning of this article, arguing now about a problem that might not even arise is completely useless.
This means that there is a lot of sense in the Prime Minister’s cautious approach of leaving the decision on the sixth seat for when and if the case arises… after next June’s vote.


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