The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

The omicron effect on the general election

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 16 January 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

Robert Abela may be regretting his decision not to hold the election in late 2021.

With all that has happened since he announced that the people will be asked to determine their next government in 2022, he is probably thinking that it would have been a better idea to have requested them to do so in November.

What was against him, at the time, was that the Nationalist Party was adamantly pushing for an election in November, going as far as suggesting two possible dates that were being considered.

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Had he chosen to set the date for November, as the PN was suggesting, it would have seemed to many that he would have succumbed to the PN’s wishes. The PN says that the pressure it was mounting was only a ruse and that its plan was to delay the polls for as long as possible. Hard to believe but, whatever the intentions, Abela chose to stifle the rumours by publicly stating that the election is slated for 2022.

There was another reason which pushed him to dispel the idea of a 2021 election – and this was the economic circumstances we have been dealing with since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. An election close to Christmas would have not been the best of ideas. For starters, it would not have been welcome by the hotel and tourist industry. Another economic downturn that an election inevitably brings was not ideal, given what we have gone through since March 2020.

Now that we have started the New Year, and as the deadline for an election approaches, it would have been better for Abela to get the election over and done with. For one thing, we did not have omicron in November.

Robert Abela could not have anticipated that things were going to change so dramatically.

Rise in numbers

We have seen an exponential rise in the number of people contracting Covid since late December.

The arrival of the omicron variant, which is more contagious than other forms of the virus, has meant that more and more people are being confined to their homes. The health authorities have said that omicron has less serious effects, but quarantine regulations remain in force, although for a shorter timeframe for people who are vaccinated, booster included.

There are more hospitalisations too, again in numbers that have risen sharply in the past weeks when compared to what we had in November. More people are dying too. We had times when deaths were happening sporadically; now they are taking place on a more regular basis again.

This has also meant that more people are in quarantine. As the number of active cases remains higher than 10,000 – it had reached a peak of more than 15,000 – the number of people in quarantine is at least twice that, and this is also affecting workplaces and the economy. People who are in quarantine cannot, or should not, leave their homes.

This therefore inevitably raises questions as to what is going to happen on election day, especially if the numbers remain so high as they are these days.

Questions as to how people who are confined to their homes are going to vote, if they will be allowed to do so, are being made. And, if they won’t, wouldn’t this be tantamount to depriving them of their right to vote? In past elections, people were taken out of their beds to express their preference. And it is also true that people with contagious diseases also went to vote in the presence of others. Nobody bothered to question them at the time.

Will there be specific arrangements for people in quarantine to be allowed to leave their homes to vote? Will there be specific times for them to do so? This is part of the conundrum that adds to the headache of organising an election.

Date selection

A date for an election must be announced at least 33 days before polling day.

But we have seen, since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, how things can change so rapidly in a month or so.

Just to give an example, on 6 January 2022 we reached the peak of 15,065 active cases. Thirty-three days before that, on 4 December, the number of active cases was just 1,347, just 8 per cent of the highest toll reached on the day of the Epiphany.

So Abela could be calling an election in circumstances that could be totally different from the ones that could be experienced on the day of the vote. A situation with 1,347 active cases is more manageable than one in which there are 15,065 people with Covid. Not to mention the multiplier effect of having so many others in quarantine because they have been in contact with a positive person, or simply because they share the same household.

The situation was under more control in the last quarter of 2021, in the pre-omicron days, and this is why Abela may be having regrets.

The more time passes, the fewer the options Abela will have to secure that the election is held without so much trouble. And nothing guarantees him that the situation on election day will the same as that on which he announces the date.

It is yet another reason why the political parties should sit down together and find a solution to the fact that, as things stand now, one can only vote via going personally to a polling booth. We even get Maltese voters from abroad to do so, at considerable expense, just because we still do not trust other systems.

Each time we believe that we could be closer to doing away with this archaic way. We are now counting votes electronically; at least we made this step in the last 2019 MEP election. So what are we waiting for to make the voting exercise more voter-friendly too?

The widespread presence of omicron will also mean that the parties will have to come up with new ways of reaching out to the electorate. They may have to do away with the traditional mass meetings and other gatherings.

Unless, of course, they will hold them anyway. It’s not as if the health authorities are exercising any power on politicians. Just see how Labour MPs continue not to wear masks in Parliament as one example of how the health authorities are weak with the strong.

Other reasons

Aside from omicron, there are other reasons why, with hindsight, Abela would have been in a better position for an election in November 2021.

Konrad Mizzi would not have appeared for his charade before the Public Accounts Committee, with his never-ending presentation which is now set to resume in the coming days.

The government would also have avoided the shame of the Justyne Caruana resignation following the conclusion of a report by the Standards Commissioner into her ethical behaviour when she gave a contract to a “friend”, Daniel Bogdanovic. Resignations in Malta are not common, so a minister who resigns twice in the same legislature is one of a kind.

Most of all, it would have not given the PN the time to come up with 12 pieces of legislation based on the recommendations made by the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry. The PN did what the government should have immediately done as soon as the inquiry report was made public.

That Labour was hard hit by the PN’s initiative was easily seen with the way it reacted to the proposals. Two statements – one by government, one by the Labour Party – were issued in quick succession in a bid to counter the PN’s initiative. But the response was weak.

As it happened, the government is now between a rock and a hard place.

If it supports the bills as presented by the PN, it would have succumbed to the humiliation of having an opposition which was more pro-active following the conclusions of the inquiry into the heinous murder of the journalist.

If it doesn’t support the bills, then it would be seen as being against making attempts to work towards better governance and an improved rule of law.

It is probable that Labour will find some middle ground in order to claim ownership of any changes that will be made.

But whatever it decides, Labour has lost on this one. Whether it has served to shift voters away from it is, however, doubtful.

Speculation

We now expect speculation on the date of the election to pick up in the next few weeks, as the deadline approaches.

We know that Abela can stretch this legislature to August, but it does not look likely that we will go down that road.

An early spring election is more likely, so as to cause as little disruption as possible to schools which, as is known, serve as polling stations. Schools have passed through very difficult moments because of the pandemic, and the least the government can do is see to their needs by not holding the election too close to the end-of-academic-year examination period.

One date which can be ruled out is 16 April, which is Easter Saturday.

 

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