Fact-check Malta: Who gets to be mayor in Malta’s hung councils?

Several of Malta’s largest localities emerged from the local council elections held on 8 June with hung councils, after neither of Malta’s two main political parties obtained a majority of seats.

In Birkirkara, one of Malta’s most populated towns, the Labour Party (PL) and Nationalist Party (PN) each won six seats, meaning that independent councillor Kaylocke Buhagiar’s seat will tip the balance of power in one direction or another.

In the northern town of Mellieħa, another independent, Matthew Borg Cuschieri,  sits squarely between the two parties’ eight seats.

The town of Żebbuġ has not one, but two, independent councillors in the shape of Steve Zammit Lupi and his mother, Lillibeth, together with four PL and three PN councillors.

Likewise, the towns of Floriana and Għarb will also have hung councils, with former independent mayor Nigel Holland winning a seat in the former and two councillors from Għarb l-Ewwel (Għarb First), David Apap and Lisa Marie Brooke, getting elected in the latter.

The situation has led to much confusion and speculation online, with different versions of how the mayor in each of these localities will be selected having been floated in recent days. Some have argued that the party that won the most first-count votes in each locality will select a mayor, whilst others claimed that the situation is more complex, with horse-trading likely to be a major player.

But what does the law say should happen in these situations?

How is a mayor usually selected?

Malta’s electoral law is quite simple on the matter –  the candidate who receives the most first-count votes from the party that has the majority of seats in the council is automatically appointed mayor.

Whoever is next in line from the same party gets the role of deputy mayor.

The law also provides a failsafe in the case of several unlikely scenarios. If the top two candidates get an identical number of votes, then whoever has served on the council longest gets the prize. If that’s identical too, seniority kicks in and the older of the two wins.

But what if there’s no party with a majority of seats?

This is where things get interesting.

In the case of a hung council, the mayor and deputy mayor’s election become the key topic of the council’s very first meeting, once all councillors have been sworn in.

During this meeting, an open ballot vote is taken to elect both the mayor and deputy mayor, after giving each councillor the opportunity to nominate whoever they like for each role.

Councillors can nominate any other councillor for either role, regardless of their party or how many votes they received.

The council’s executive secretary then reads out each nominee’s name and the councillors take it in turn to say whether they support their bid or not, or if they wish to abstain.

Once a nominee receives a simple majority among the councillors, they get the job.

What if there’s a stalemate?

Stalemates in local politics are not unheard of and local councils are no exception.

If none of the councillors nominated for the role of mayor or deputy mayor gets a simple majority, the same vote is repeated five more times during the same meeting, in the hope that someone will eventually prevail.

If things are still jammed after six votes, everyone is sent home to think things through for a week and the same process is repeated exactly one week later.

If there’s still no agreement after that second meeting, things get a little more complicated.

With the council’s work in the new legislature needing to get off the ground, an interim mayor is appointed until the impasse is resolved.

The stand-in mayor will be the councillor who received the most first-count votes from the party that has the majority of votes (rather than seats) in the council.

So, for the sake of argument, if Labour has the majority of votes, the Labour councillor with the most first-count votes is appointed interim mayor. The same principle applies if PN has the upper hand in votes. This term lasts for three months, after which, everything goes back to square one and the councillors once again meet to vote for their preferred mayor and deputy mayor.

Surely this never happened in Malta?

Think again. Not only has it happened but it involved one of the independent candidates who will once again be vying for the top job in his hometown this time around.

Back in 2012, a bitter impasse in the Floriana council reached a head when Labour councillor Davina Sammut Hili was appointed interim mayor for three months after the two PL and two PN councillors failed to reach an agreement on who would become the town’s mayor.

Caught in between the two parties was outgoing independent mayor Nigel Holland, who had been elected to the council’s fifth seat.

Holland received the backing of the two PN councillors but was opposed by the PL councillors, amid accusations of horse-trading. Holland, the PL councillors claimed, had agreed to support a PN councillor for deputy mayor in return for their support for mayor.

The situation was eventually resolved, with Holland eventually appointed mayor later in the same year.

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Fact Check, Politics, Uncategorized

Author(s): Neville Borg

Originally published here.