The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

Power of incumbency and how voters can be influenced

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 19 September 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 29 days ago

The more an election approaches, the more we will start hearing the term power of incumbency.

It will be mostly used by the opposition, as it highlights the advantage that any government has over its political adversaries simply because it has the country’s reins in its hands.

It was used by the Labour Party when the Nationalists were in government. It was one of Alfred Sant’s favourite phrases. It was then used in 2017, and will be used again this time, by the Nationalists because the PL is in power.

Over successive elections, there were calls for better guidelines, and even stronger regulations, as to what governments can do between the time an election is called and the day we vote. They usually come from the opposition, those close to it, and others who want elections to be fair.

There will probably be calls for such changes this time too.

But these guidelines and regulations never come to be.

Governments, whichever party is at Castille, have so much to lose if the power of incumbency is limited.

And so the rules are never changed.

What is it?

Anyone who is in a position of power has the possibility, and often uses it, to gain advantage over his or her adversaries.

It does not only happen in politics, where a country’s future is at stake.

It is resorted to in all spheres of life where there is a competition for a headship. People who already hold that position practise it for their own benefit – to keep their place and to ward off anyone who attempts to fight for that same position.

It happens in enterprises where chairmen are elected by shareholders. It also takes place in associations where elections are held every number of years to re-elect a committee. There are also football clubs, such as the mighty Real Madrid and Barcelona, who hold elections to appoint their president.

It happens, most of all, in politics, where the ruling party uses its position of power to win votes. It is an advantage that is not thrown away.

It is not a situation that solely pertains to Malta. Just one statistic may suffice – in the United States, 80 per cent of incumbents win re-election to the House of Representatives. This has been happening for more than 50 years; sometimes the percentage climbed to more than 90 in these last five decades.

Caretaker

Technically speaking, when an election is called, the government should take on the role of “caretaker”. This means that, until an election is held and a winner is declared, the “government” carries on the day-to-day administration of the county, but should not use its role for its own benefit or, to be more precise, for the benefit of the party in power.

But it has happened many times that, before an election, the government – or people who represent it – takes decisions which can influence voters. This is not solely limited to the official election campaign, but often starts in the weeks and months preceding it.

Throughout the course of a legislature, a government does it best to retain its voter base and increase support. Often, it resorts to money as one method of winning voters over. They may be labelled as populist moves, but there is certainly no better way to win votes than to keep people financially happy. In this sense, the Labour government quickly realised that a tax rebate here and a voucher there could go a long way. It has exercised this practice several times since it was elected in 2013.

But, while this is up to a point understandable – and more so at a time of crisis such as the one we are experiencing now because of the Covid-19 pandemic – it is other, more blatant attempts that often lead the opposition to cry foul.

Personal

This is because it’s one thing to give a tax rebate or €100 vouchers across the board, and it’s a completely different story when the matter turns personal.

Just to give one example, before the 1987 election, the Labour government had employed 8,000 persons with the public service. It was an obvious move to reduce the high unemployment at the time and also an attempt to influence these 8,000 people and their families.

Rumours that these 8,000 would have been dismissed if the Nationalist Party had been elected prompted the PN to immediately say that all of them would have retained their job. The PN had won that election anyway, and none of the jobs were lost. That move had led to an inflated public service and an exorbitant increase to the costs of running it. That political decision, easily described as an abuse of the power of incumbency, remained a burden on public coffers for years.

The offering of jobs is one way through which a government can use its hold on power in a bid to attract votes. Giving someone a job, especially if it is an open-ended one with no definite contract involved, puts that new employee’s mind at rest. It may even serve to win the votes of that employee’s closest relatives.

The government may always justify the need to give such jobs. There are natural adjustments that need to be made to replace people who retire. There are then urgent situations which require immediate attention; what comes to mind is, for example, the exodus of foreign nurses who left Malta during the Covid-19 pandemic for a job in the UK which offered better salaries and conditions. Such situations need to be rectified in the short-term and any recruitment to fill in shortages would be necessary. It’s when employment takes place without there being a real need which raises concern. 

Other methods used by governments to influence voters is through giving appointments in public entities, starting a selection process for promotions of appointments and handing out permits at a faster rate than normal, ranging from massive development projects to a more simpler authorisation for restaurant/bar chairs and tables to be placed on a pavement.

These are all situations that can be used by a government – and its representatives – to manipulate voters. As things stand now, nothing prohibits a government from doing this until the eve of an election.

PBS

The biggest power of incumbency a government can wield is through the State-owned media. PBS, and its predecessors, was always accused of serving the government of the day to the detriment of the opposition. The more an election approaches, the more watchful eyes there are on the way PBS presents its news, runs its current affairs programmes, and deals with day-to-day political situations.

The Nationalist Party is already pointing fingers at PBS, saying that it has been taken over by the Labour Party and seeing to the government’s needs. It says that the PN is allotted little time on the national station, and any reports about PN activities and statements carried by PBS are way down in the list of items broadcast in news bulletins. It is likely that such accusations will grow in number as we get closer to polling day.

Tricks

Voters can be influenced in other ways and politicians use all tricks of the trade to get that number one on the ballot sheet.

It can, in a way, also be described as “power of incumbency” when politicians – of both sides of the House of Representatives – hand out roly-polies, oranges, cupcakes, Covid-19 masks or food to anti-poverty charities or in elderly people’s homes, to mention just a few examples. There were some who went as far as gifting hampers or bottles of wine to their supporters.

When asked to investigate one recent instance, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, George Hyzler, said that the matter did not pertain to alleged breaches of the code of ethics for parliamentary members, but it was one concerning the country’s electoral laws.

Under Maltese law, giving out free food, drinks or any other gift in an attempt to influence an electoral choice is illegal, and anyone found guilty is liable to a fine or a six-month prison term. The law, however, has never been applied. One wonders how many politicians would have ended up behind bars – if it had been enforced.

And more would have followed considering the lavish parties politicians hold during the election campaign. Free-flowing drinks and sumptuous buffets are the order of the day, and many constituents end up partying daily, possibly promising a number one preference to each of their hosts.

Even here, laws exist as to how much politicians can spend in their personal bid to get elected but, as we all know, nobody has ever been charged with any breach, let alone face the consequences.

Politicians say that anyone arguing that people can be bought with a small gift is insulting the voters’ intelligence.

What’s insulting is that there are politicians who think they can do so.

 

 

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