The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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Independent mother-son duo looking to shift the dynamic of local councils

Isaac Saliba Sunday, 26 May 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

Leading up to this year’s local council elections, Żebbuġ Malta and Żebbuġ Gozo were the only two localities with a council seat occupied by an independent candidate.

Focusing on Żebbuġ, the independent candidate is Steve Zammit Lupi. Five years ago, in 2019, he was the only candidate in his locality to run as an independent and was successfully elected.

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However, in the run-up to this year’s elections, two other independent candidates declared their intentions to contest for a seat in the locality’s council, with one of them being Zammit Lupi’s own mother, Elizabeth. The other candidate is 21-year-old Joel Chircop, who Steve and Elizabeth say is working closely with them to strengthen the position of independent candidates in the locality.

The Malta Independent on Sunday reached out to the mother-son duo to speak about their intentions and plans as local council candidates.

Steve Zammit Lupi began by recalling how five years ago, he was the sole independent candidate in Żebbuġ, and that he was initially met with a lot of scepticism and told that he would have a much better chance of getting elected if he were to run as a party candidate. Despite this, he said that the locals showed great confidence in him as he received nearly 1,000 first count votes, which is a significant accomplishment for an independent candidate to achieve.

He mentioned that his first candidacy was more of a surprise and an unexpected decision, but after serving as a councillor for five years, people started urging him to run again.

He continued that because of this, he felt a sort of responsibility as the only elected independent councillor. “I have always tried to work with everyone and look past political affiliations, and I try to avoid getting involved in partisan discourse,” he remarked. “I have always remained loyal towards these principles, and I think that people appreciate and value that.”

He said that in order for the position of independent candidates to be strengthened and be given more significance in the voting mechanism, having more of them capable of winning seats in the council was an important aim. This is because the mayor’s seat is occupied by the candidate of the party that obtains the majority of votes.

“This is the best chance for the locality to have an independent mayor,” he said. He continued that the three independent candidates are choosing to work together as a team, and that this initiative seems to be resonating well with the residents, who he said seem to appreciate the thought behind it. “Maybe we can manage to shake the system even more,” he remarked.

Expanding on that notion, Elizabeth Zammit Lupi said that having more independent candidates strengthens the position of independents as a whole.” She added that there are many who believe that local councils should work independently of politics, with no party affiliations. She continued that herself, her son, and Chircop are ready to contribute to the community and want to make it clear that they are foremost interested in the wellbeing of the locality’s residents. “That’s what local councils are for at the end of the day,” she commented “to represent their communities.”

Speaking further in regard to her candidacy announcement, she said that many people were initially surprised by the idea, but that the feedback has been very positive since. She added that people want to have councillors who are looking to genuinely contribute, not councillors who are there because they align with a political party.

Steve said that he believes with the present political environment in the country, people are looking more towards reliable independent candidates. He said that in the weeks leading up to the elections he has been gauging feedback from residents regarding the local council’s performance throughout the past five years, and what locals believe are the most important issues as well as what suggestions they believe should be considered. He explained that he is working on an administrative report encompassing the work he has done over the past five years, and that he is planning to release it as well as launch a manifesto with the proposals and ideals of the three independent candidates.

“I feel it is important for the residents to know what is actually happening behind the scenes. We are trying to make a real campaign with substance, not just host campaigning events and make use of endorsements from political figures. I think that people appreciate our approach a lot.”

Asked for their thoughts regarding concerns that local councils have been losing their autonomy, the independent councillor said that in his experience throughout the last five years, he has felt that certain work is too centralised towards government authorities. He added that he prefers to avoid relying on central entities to carry out basic tasks and projects within the locality, emphasising that the local council's capacity should not depend on a ministry or minister.

Continuing on this topic, he said that councils are limited, particularly in terms of funding. He said that the Żebbuġ local council has a budget of €1m annually and so the locality of 14,000 people needs to be managed with that money. “A million for a locality of that size is not much at all.” he noted that while this issue may not be as severe in Żebbuġ compared to other localities, those dealing with an influx of tourists face additional pressure on both the locality and the council. He said that there are additional funds which local councils can apply for, but that the process is very bureaucratic and wastes a lot of time, which is not ideal when human resources are already limited and when councillors should have an expected level of accountability.

“The council is referred to as a local government, but I see it as that almost only in name,” he remarked, adding that the council has no executive power and often needs to apply for things with long waiting periods, which is not suitable for issues that need to be addressed immediately.

He continued that within the next five years, the country needs to see how it is going to keep local councils relevant. He stated that the two major parties are struggling to find enough high-quality candidates for local elections, and this situation should serve as a clear indicator that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

They concluded by speaking about the situation of independent candidates as a whole in regard to this election.

Steve said that for the first time in a long time, there are a number of valid independent candidates in various localities. He said that there seems to be a shift, where running as an independent is no longer “almost seen as taboo”.

He said that he is very curious to see what happens in the localities with said independent candidates, noting that if councils truly serve the citizens and residents, then more space and opportunities should be provided for these individuals to participate in council work.

 

CAPTION:

Steve Zammit Lupi, his mother Elizabeth and Joel Chircop, three independent candidates contesting the Żebbuġ local council election

 

 

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