Updated: Aug 30, 2022
By Ġorġ Vella
March 21, 2022 at 6:00pm
Many of us currently studying within the University of Malta have never voted in a General Election, and now that we find ourselves during election week, we realise that we were never prepared for this choice. Moreover, many of us have received little education about active citizenship as part of a four-module study-unit at 6th form or post-secondary level, yet have never truly been educated in our formative years to think critically or to debate in a civilised manner on subjects which we do not agree upon with others.
The absence of these skills can be seen in many instances. Consider the Leaders’ Debate held within the University of Malta as an example, which has descended into a mindless rally on many occasions (2008 and 2022 being prime examples). This is not the behaviour expected from those attending the highest academic institutions in Malta, albeit the incitement was the doing of extreme party loyalists.
Yet, how can we expect better when we are taught nothing about the above-mentioned skills of critical thinking and civilised debating. How can we choose the right leadership and direction for our country when we are taught nothing on how to understand the cause, functioning, and impacts of electoral proposals, how to extract and understand information, and how to debate using that same information?
Voting, merely a right, or a citizen’s duty?
Voting, for the majority, is the simple exercise of casting a ballot every couple of years, in favour of the party that best serves their interests, or who they deem most able to lead the country. We can all agree that voting is a fundamental right, but is it a duty? Published literature portrays many different opinions; some argue that the majority feel a moral obligation to vote (Blais et. al., 2019), and others believe abstention is a valid and acceptable decision. Rather than a duty, many prefer “responsibility” when asked whether one has an obligation to vote, and consider abstentions only when they do not coincide with the major political movements going head to head in an election. There are countries that have resorted to making it illegal to abstain, however, studies show that this often results in many uninterested voters voting for the status quo, being the party in power (State Library, New South Wales).
The case of Malta
Universal suffrage was first introduced in Malta in 1947, making all men and women aged 21 and over eligible to vote and stand for an election. The minimum age was lowered to 18 in 1974, and further to 16 after Parliament unanimously passed a bill to amend the national minimum voting age in 2018. Voting rights are indiscriminate, and access to voting is seldom impeded. Voter turnout in Malta has always been substantially high, with more than 90% of the electorate casting their votes in all General Elections since 1998.
The above would make it seem as though we have a perfectly functioning democracy, and an engaged electorate. Yet, many see election campaigns in Malta as a show of party tribalism - through rallies, mass meetings, and pre-election parties -, populous proposals, and shady deals in return for political favours. Moreover, you are constantly reminded that an election is approaching, from ads to billboards, flyers, house visits, phone calls, and news, all of which conveniently tell you who to vote for, or what you require, but elaborate little on the how and why.
Many robust proposals, designed to satisfy the many different lobbyists are thrown around carelessly, irrelevant of whether they are sustainable or future-proof. Party supporters descend into spiteful encounters, and the prevalence of mindless bickering and idolising on social media is rampant. There are few countries like Malta, where politicians are idolised like footballers, and parties are supported with the same vigour as football clubs. An argument that may be extracted from this is that we do not comprehend politics for what it truly is, yet whether this is due to not wanting to be involved, or not being equipped, remains to be explored.
Time to re-evaluate our Educational System?
The last time the Maltese educational curriculum was re-evaluated was in 2012, and even that did not consist of a complete rehaul of the draconian syllabi and teaching techniques that date back more than a century. Our educational system teaches us structures, falls in line and promotes study by heart. There is little to no room for using alternate methods, and for debate on strict doctrines such as Religion, Sexual-Education, and Active Citizenship. In a nutshell, we are taught to be machines, focusing on academic brilliance (employability) rather than bringing up a generation of skilled, critically-thinking, and humane professionals.
What good is it doing us?
Malta ranks 1st out of the EU27 as regards early-school leavers* statistics (EuroStat 2020)
Malta ranks 1st in teen pregnancy rates in southern Europe (Eurostat, 2020)
Malta ranks 2nd lowest in equal representation in Parliament (15 seats out of 64)
*In Malta, “early-school leavers” refers to those aged 18-24 (Times of Malta, 2021) who do not further pursue their studies. Yet, Malta also has a lower minimum school-leaving age, so Malta’s top rank of early-school leavers in the EU does not even account for the 15%+ of students who cease their studies at the age of 16 (Chamber of Commerce, 2021).
The only major proposal to address this alarming rate of early school leavers has come from the Malta Chamber of Commerce, who recommended that the minimum school leaving age be raised to that of 18 last August (Times of Malta, 2021), however educational psychologist Carmel Cefai, ex-dean of the Faculty of Education within UoM, said that while he “agrees in principle with raising the minimum mandatory age”, this cannot be a continuation of a scholastic experience that has ruined several students. He went on to state that these formative years in secondary education must serve the holistic needs of all students, and not simply employability.
Indeed, this reflects on others facets of life and not merely academic and professional pursuits. When it comes to managing healthy relationships, sexual education, and ethics, the educational system in use offers very little. Many of these subjects, such as sex-ed for example, are taboo within Maltese schools, so many students end up referring to the internet (81%) or their parents (33%), with school being relatively unhelpful (Mercieca, 2021). Moreover, it transcends from how individuals manage their own relationships, to how they treat others as well. A case in point would discrimination against the LGBTI+ community, whereas Malta ranks the first in legislation (ILGA Group), discrimination is still often felt on the ground, especially in recreational places (such as Paceville), at the place of work (LGTBI+ Gozo, 2021), and most especially by asylum seekers (ILGA, 2021).
Subjects that incorporate ethical and compassionate values teach students disciplines different from those of the sciences, just as they are different from the disciplines of languages, and the arts. The latter build a professional, while the first develop a decent human being. What remains would be an engaged citizen, and this is done by being involved and informed. Deriving information is a crucial skill that may be applied in academic/professional situations and in managing relationships and recreation. A strong educational system would raise students that research thoroughly and ethically through reliable and up to date sources, whilst involvement is developed through debating and critical thinking skills.
However, our reality is that our educational system does not prepare us for decisions such as that of the general election. Now, in the week of the election, we are faced with the options of either voting for one of the major political parties, voting for a third party, or abstaining. What can you do to inform yourself:
Read the Electoral Manifestos
The best way to see what each of the political parties, contesting through their candidates, are offering, will be their electoral manifesto. This document entails the direction in which this party would steer the country should it hold a majority, and policies and roadmaps that shall achieve this vision in the next 5 years. Attached are all published electoral manifestos for the upcoming election (in alphabetical order).
Watch the debates
Political debates are an important tool for the electorate to judge their candidates under pressure. Albeit in most debates, the speakers are informed of the content and the structure of the questions beforehand - to prepare an adequate answer, or to gather technical information -, there is some in which the speakers are grilled and not given time to formulate a response which works best for them, like the recent debate organised by the Malta Chamber, between Prime Minister Robert Abela, and leader of the Opposition Bernard Grech.
Who is contesting your district?
It is important to know who is contesting your electoral district and to make your concerns heard in an ethical and procedural manner. Remember that ultimately, the candidates in your district are representing a party and its ideologies (unless it is an independent candidate). If you wish to learn more about who is contesting in your district visit IElectMalta to inform yourself further.
Do your values and ideologies coincide?
This is a decision you must come to a resolution by yourself. Think and reflect about your core beliefs, values, and concerns, brush up on some political theories, the political left and right (yet in Malta, the main parties are in the centre of the political spectrum, shifting slightly to the left and right respectively), and see which candidates best fit the synthesis of all this.
You are also encouraged to vote and to use this fundamental right. You may not be excluded from debates and political discussions should you abstain, and your opinion will matter all the same. Abstention is not illegal, but it is not encouraged.
ASCS will be releasing our “Electoral Toolkit” paper later this week, to inform you on your voting rights, the etiquette expected when voting, and how the election is decided.