The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Gender-corrective mechanism had reverse effect

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 1 May 2022, 09:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Now that in the last election we saw the implementation of the gender-corrective mechanism, we know that the concerns that were being expressed when Parliament was debating the issue and later amended the Electoral Law were justified.

As expected, the system, which will remain in place as both parties in the House have no intention to reverse the decision they took last year, led to an over-inflated House of Representatives.

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In the past legislature, we already had the biggest Parliament, per capita, in the European Union. Now we have jumped ahead even further, with 79 MPs each representing 6,300 citizens, or 4,500 voters. This is because 12 “extra” seats were given to women to increase the representation of their gender in the House.

Looking back, it’s a good thing that, when the Labour Party and Nationalist Party were discussing the amendments to the law, they picked 40% share of the House for the “under-represented” sex (read: women, in our case) but they capped the number of additional MPs to six for either side, even if this 40% is not reached.

With the 12 additional seats granted to women after the result of the last elections, they now make up 28% of the total. Imagine how many more would have had to be added to reach that 40%.

It seems, however, that the idea of introducing the gender-mechanism process to enable the election of more women has backfired – because women candidates were not preferred by the electorate. And if women continue to undermine themselves the electorate will not forgive them.

Four plus six plus 12

Only four women were elected from the first total of 65 MPs, five for each of the 13 districts.

These were three Labour candidates: Miriam Dalli, Julia Farrugia Portelli and Alison Zerafa Civelli; and one Nationalist Party candidate, Graziella Galea. Of these, only Miriam Dalli made it from two districts.

This is half of the eight women candidates who were directly elected in 2017. That time, Labour had elected Justyne Caruana, Helena Dalli and Julia Farrugia Portelli, while Marthese Portelli, Claudette Buttigieg, Therese Comodini Cachia and Kristy Debono were elected as Nationalist Party candidates. Marlene Farrugia, leader of Partit Demokratiku was also elected.

In 2017, the number of women increased by two when Rosianne Cutajar (PL) and Maria Deguara (PN) made it via the casual election. The total number of women, at the start of the legislature, was therefore 10.

Following the 2022 election, the number of women first increased by six after the casual elections were held. Katya de Giovanni, Rosianne Cutajar, Rebecca Buttigieg and Romilda Baldacchino Zarb (all PL) and Rebekah Cilia and Graziella Attard Previ (both PN) earned a seat vacated by MPs who were elected on two districts.

The number of women MPs, therefore, would have been again 10 at the start of this legislature. But the tally has been increased by 12 as the gender-corrective mechanism came into force. As a result, Alicia Bugeja Said, Cressida Galea, Abigail Camilleri, Amanda Spiteri Grech, Naomi Cachia and Davina Sammut Hili were elected for the PL, while Janice Chetcuti, Paula Mifsud Bonnici, Julia Zahra, Bernice Bonello, Claudette Buttigieg and Eve Borg Bonello made it for the PN.

Janice Chetcuti

There would have been one more woman in the House of Representatives if Janice Chetcuti had not made the strange decision, probably with the blessing of the PN, not to contest the casual election.

Chetcuti would have likely been elected in the casual election on the third district, to replace Stephen Spiteri, who vacated this seat as he also made it from the second district.

But she chose not to contest the casual election, publicly saying that she was sure to make it to Parliament via the gender-corrective mechanism.

By doing so, Chetcuti deprived another woman of the chance to be elected. As it happened, the candidate who was elected from the third district was a man (Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici). If Chetcuti had opted for the casual election, she would have made it to Parliament in a more prestigious way, and would have allowed another woman to be elected via the gender-mechanism process.

Chetcuti was chastised by Prime Minister Robert Abela for her choice and, frankly, he is not wrong to say that this political manoeuvring does not help women’s cause for more representation. That, then, Chetcuti’s decision served to elect a veteran MP who was later not even given a post on the PN shadow cabinet makes the choice even more bizarre.

It would have been much better – for Chetcuti, and for the PN – for her to find a place in the House through the casual election, and at the same time give the chance to another woman to be elected too when the gender-mechanism process was completed.

Maybe Abela was thinking of what Chetcuti did when he said that the gender-corrective mechanism will need to be fine-tuned. We will know more over the coming years.

Third parties

If any amendments are to be made, they should include provisions on what happens if more than two parties are represented in Parliament.

As things stand now, the gender-corrective mechanism comes into force only if two parties make it to the House. If three or more are elected, then there will not be any additional seats granted to women.

This state of affairs has been harshly criticised by the smaller parties, which have argued the way the electoral law was amended served the interests of the two major parties. To be fair, the PN had made an attempt to amend the law as presented by the government, to enable its implementation even if three or more parties were elected. But these changes had been rejected by Labour.

The PL and PL now have five years to think about the matter, and come up with a solution that is fairer.

Whether they will wait for the outcome of a constitutional case filed by ADPD on the matter remains to be seen. The ADPD is contending that the law is discriminatory, and is insisting that it is corrected to apply to all situations, including the possibility that more than two parties earn seats in the House.

The election

That only four women were elected directly (without the need of casual elections or gender-corrective mechanism) gave rise to several interpretations.

First of all, one must point out that missing from the list of candidates this time round were six of the eight who had been elected in 2017: Helena Dalli, Justyne Caruana, Marthese Portelli, Kristy Debono, Therese Comodini Cachia and Marlene Farrugia.

All of them were established politicians, with a very solid voter base in their respective districts. Dalli and Portelli had been elected from two districts in 2017.

The absence of these six former MPs likely pushed many voters to vote for male candidates.

Secondly, the gender-corrective mechanism probably had the reverse effect on voters than it was originally intended.

Many opted not to give their number one preference to women candidates in the knowledge that there will be 12 of them in Parliament anyway.

So, given the choice between a male and female candidate, many preferred to give their vote to the male knowing that “he” required more votes to be elected than “she” did, given that “he” needed to obtain a quota of votes whereas “she” just needed to finish among the first six non-elected female members of “her” party. With so few women contesting, it was therefore easier for “her” to make it.

In a nutshell, the women candidates who were elected via the gender-corrective mechanism process obtained fewer votes than men who were not elected.

So the question that was originally brought up when the electoral law was being amended is even more pertinent now: is the system fair? Or is it discriminatory against men?

Maybe one of the unelected male candidates will find the courage to contest it in court, like the ADPD is doing.

While agreeing that more women should be encouraged to participate in politics, it is degrading to women that they need this kind of push to be elected.

Women should make it on their own steam and on their own merits.

After all, voters do not hold back if they think that women are better candidates than men. The many mentioned earlier in this piece – and there were others before them – did not need to have a gender-corrective mechanism in place to get elected.

And when, in 2014, four out of six MEPs elected by the Maltese were women, there was no gender-corrective mechanism either.

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