EU election: Malta’s noisy campaign hinges on national issues

Island life. Tom Mascardo, CC BY-ND

The European election campaign in Malta is as noisy as any Maltese political campaign can be. But Europe is just a peripheral subject, as the main competing parties are almost exclusively focused on national issues.

There are six MEP seats to be filled in this election. The Labour and Nationalist parties, the only two parties represented in the Maltese Parliament, are likely to claim three each. Labour currently in government, has fielded 13 candidates, while the Nationalist Party have 11 running.

The larger parties tend to field as many candidates as they can in order to be able to attract more votes. Malta’s voting system is based on the single transferable vote. The candidates with the fewer votes are eliminated and their votes are passed to the other candidates until the six seats are filled.

Among the other parties, Alternattiva Demokratica (the green party) has two, the far-right Imperium Europa three, the Eurosceptic Alleanza Bidla (the Alliance for Change) two, and the Alleanza Liberali (Liberal Alliance) and fringe one-man party Partit tal-Ajkla (Eagle) one each. On May 9, one of the labour candidates pullout of the race after losing a case in the criminal court and was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence.

Europa.eu

Around 330,000 people are eligible to vote, including citizens from other EU countries resident in Malta who have registered to vote here. Voter turnout is always very high in Maltese elections, with 93% participating in the national election on March 9 last year.

But there are signs of a decline: in the 2003 polls, when Malta’s EU membership was confirmed by referendum, the turnout was 95.7% for the general election and 91% for the referendum. In the 2004 and 2009 European elections, voter turnout was much lower, coming in at 82.4% and 78.8% respectively – and it is projected to decline further in the 2014 election.

Broadly speaking, the Maltese have a very positive view of the EU by the standards of most EU member populations. This implies that only a small proportion of those voters who stay away from the polls do so out of euroscepticism; the reasons that keep the rest away remain unclear.

One potential explanation is that Malta is eternally in campaign mode, and election fatigue is therefore extremely high. To make matters worse, Maltese politics is highly adversarial and polarised. Insularity has shaped Maltese culture and politics, and this aspect tends to be on full display in political campaigns.

Introversion

Although European elections will not change the national political landscape, where Labour enjoys a nine-seat parliamentary majority (out of 69), national issues predominate.

Above all, the dominant issue is immigration; next comes unemployment (which is less than 7%), followed by bird hunting and governance.

But since the campaign is almost entirely focused on national issues, it is difficult to work out where Maltese politicians stand on major European issues. We have heard next to nothing about the Ukraine crisis, the eurozone recovery, or any of the other major issues discussed in European politics.

And Malta certainly faces the same challenges as many other countries across the EU. It needs to improve its competitiveness, achieve the Europe 2020 goals, reduce public debt and government spending, improve gender equality, and shore up its energy security. All these have been sidelined in the European campaign.

There are huge expectations about this election. Some voters are curious to know who will win, while the majority are keen to have it over and done with – but only those who have already decided they will not vote are indifferent to the outcome.

The general feeling is that the first decade of EU membership has been very good for Malta – but as the absence of European issues from the campaign shows, it is not clear what the Maltese want to achieve from here onwards.