Freedom in the World
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In the tightest election in decades, the ruling Nationalist Party (PN) edged out the opposition Malta Labour Party by just 1,200 votes. In keeping with the constitution, extra seats were added to the parliament to ensure that the winning party had a legislative majority.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malta joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. Power has alternated between the pro-Western, center-right Nationalist Party (PN) and the nonaligned, leftist Malta Labour Party (MLP). The PN pursued membership in the European Union (EU), which the country finally achieved in 2004.
In March 2004, the parliament elected Edward Fenech Adami, the outgoing prime minister and veteran PN leader, as president of the republic. Lawrence Gonzi, the deputy prime minister, took over the premiership.
Gonzi led the PN to a narrow victory in the March 2008 elections, defeating the MLP by a margin of just 1,200 votes. The PN won 49.3 percent of the overall vote, compared with 48.9 percent for the MLP.However, the results in the country’s 13 five-seat electoral constituencies gave the MLP 34 seats and the PN just 31, triggering a constitutional provision that allowed extra seats to be added to ensure a legislative majority for the party winning the popular vote. The PN consequently received four additional seats. Voter turnout was 93 percent, the lowest the country had seen since 1971.
In September 2008, the government welcomed the EU’s adoption of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum. Malta had long advocated a common EU immigration policy to help share the responsibility of integrating the influx of migrants it receives each year. While Malta had been criticized in previous years for refusing to rescue stranded boats carrying immigrants off its shores, no similar incidents occurred during 2008.
Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 65-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected through proportional representation with a single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement, allowing voters to rank competing candidates by preference. The parliament is elected for five-year terms, and lawmakers in turn elect the president, who also serves for five years. The president names the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. Elections are generally free and fair. After the 2008 elections, four extra seats were added to the parliament, for a total of 69 members, to ensure that the party winning the overall popular vote obtained a legislative majority.
The ruling PN and opposition MLP dominate national politics. The smaller Democratic Alternative party also competes, but is not currently represented in the parliament.
The EU has faulted Malta for its lack of a specific anticorruption program.In the run-up to the March 2008 elections, member of parliament Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando was accused of corruption after an open-air disco was illegally granted a building permit on his property. An investigation was ongoing at year’s end.Malta was ranked 36 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though incitement to racial hatred is punishable by a jail term of six to eight months. In March 2008, Norman Lowell, the leader of the right-wing Imperium Europa party, was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for four years, for several incidents of inciting racial hatred between 2003 and 2006, as well as for insulting the Maltese president. There are several daily newspapers and weekly publications in Maltese and English, as well as radio and television stations. Residents also have access to Italian television broadcasts. The government does not block internet access.
The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. While the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants are tolerated and respected. There is one Muslim private school. Academic freedom is respected, and there is generally free and open discussion in the country.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights. Nongovernmental organizations investigating human rights issues are able to operate without state interference. The law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions, and limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. However, a compulsory arbitration clause in the country’s Employment and Industrial Relations Act allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers, contravening the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87. The clause is reportedly used only when all other channels for arbitration have been exhausted. In 2005, the government froze the assets of the General Workers’ Union (GWU) following a dispute between the GWU and a government-owned shipyard.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. The Police Ordinance Act, which took effect in 2003, established a witness protection program and a mechanism for handling complaints about the police. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, although the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights has objected to detention conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. An independent report on the military’s violent 2005 suppression of a protest by detained immigrants raised concerns about the use of excessive force, recommending an internal military inquiry and better training for soldiers. In January 2008, a report was released by the European Parliament that the Hal Far detention center did not meet acceptable standards due to overcrowding and prolonged detention. However, the report also claimed that basic treatment of detainees was adequate.
According to the 2007 Migrant Integration Policy Index, migrants in Malta are explicitly discriminated against, and the government provides very little protection for those who file complaints. An Equality Agency is being established to offer legal advice to migrants.
The government respects personal autonomy. However, divorce is illegal, and violence against women continues to be a problem. Abortion is prohibited, even in cases of rape or incest. Women occupy only 6 of the 69 seats in the parliament. However, women now hold two cabinet posts: minister for Gozo (the second-largest island in the group) and minister for education, culture, youth and sport. These women are the first to attain such senior government positions.
Malta, which is a destination for men and women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, remains on Tier 2 in the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report. The placement indicates that Malta does not fully comply with minimum antitrafficking standards but is making significant efforts to do so.