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Elections in Malta 1947 - 2013

The triumph of democracy and constitutional progress

Albert Farrugia PhD

Prior to World War 2, the British had awarded a number of constitutions to Malta. 150217 Albert FarrugiaThe self-governing constitution of 1921 restricted the vote to literate males who owned rental yielding property.  The main contenders were either pro-Italian or pro-British. The former won most elections and would go on to become the Nationalist Party (PN).  The latter, led by Gerald Strickland, won the 1927 election, in coalition with the very small Labour Party.  Condemned by the church, they lost the next election handsomely, and the constitution was suspended in 1932.  

Following the war, the 1947 Constitution awarded the vote to all men and women over 21, irrespective of education and economic status. The elections were held using the single transferable vote system, which usually translates into seats. 

The Nationalist party was weak and demoralised after the war.  The Labour Party, led by Dr Paul Boffa, absorbed the anti-Nationalist forces and, supported by the Trade Unions, won a sweeping victory, with 60% of the vote and 24 of 40 seats, an achievement unparalleled before or since.




In this election, Agatha Barbara (1923-2002) from Zabbar became the first woman in Malta to be elected to parliament.  She would also become the first woman to serve as minister, and later would become the first woman to serve as President (1982-1987). 

The Labour Party embarked on a program of massive social change.  They introduced income tax, social security pensions and unemployment benefits, improved education and undertook a massive reconstruction programme, as the industrial centres and harbours, the three cities and their suburbs, had been virtually destroyed in the war.

However, despite their popularity and an opposition in disarray, Labour lost the 1950 election to the national Party (PN).  What happened? 

Elected in 1947, was a young, energetic and ambitious 31 year old architect, from Cospicua (Bormla). He had studied in England during the war on a Rhodes scholarship and was heavily influenced by the Fabian Socialists.  Dom Mintoff was hugely popular and was elected with the most votes of any single candidate, a status he would hold for the next 50 years.  He was the secretary of the MLP.

Following the war, the USA embarked on a programme called Marshall Aid, particularly in Italy and Germany, to aid with reconstruction.  Malta did not qualify.  Mintoff, impatient with Boffa’s approach to this and a number of other issues, challenged for the leadership of the MLP and won, but Boffa formed the Malta Workers Party (MWP). 

In the 1950 election, the two Labour parties each gained 11 seats and the PN gained 12 seats out of 40.  However the PN formed a coalition with the MWP so they could govern.  This arrangement would work for a while, but over time the support of the MWP drifted back to the MLP. 

150217 Audience croppedIn 1951 a motion was passed through parliament, the government fell and another election was held.  The MLP gained the most votes but one less seat than the PN. The PN again formed a coalition with the MWP.  Unfortunately the Prime Minister, Dr Mizzi, died after 3 months.  He was replaced by Dr George Borg Olivier.  A vote of no confidence led to the government falling again.

Another election was held in 1953.  The MLP gained 19 seats to the PN’s 18 and the MWP’s 3, tantalisingly short of forming government due to the coalition.  This was remedied in 1955 when Boffa did not contest the election.  The MLP gained 23 seats out of 40, with the NP taking the rest, making Dom Mintoff, at the age of 39, the youngest prime minister in the British Commonwealth. 

He and the slightly older leader of the PN, Dr Borg Olivier, would dominate Maltese politics for another 25 years. Despite being in opposition, they had enormous respect for each other.

The period from 1955 to 1962 was tumultuous.  Mintoff’s policy of “integration” pushed for Malta to become part of the UK, with representation in the British House of Commons.  The aim was to raise the standard of living of the working class, who were still desperately poor, by giving them the same standard of living as British citizens.  Although it was endorsed by a referendum, for once many people did not vote.  Breakdown in negotiations led to a deterioration of relations with the British government.  The Catholic Church in Malta was also opposed, particularly concerned about integration with one of the world’s biggest Protestant powers, the Church of England. 

Mintoff abandoned integration and supported the PN’s pushed for independence.  However, he further antagonised the Church when he drafted a framework for the new constitution, the famous “Six Points”, which included the separation of church and state.  In 1958 the government resigned, violence erupted and the 1947 constitution was suspended.

The British granted a partial constitution with the idea that it would lead to independence, The Labour Party’s relationship with the church deteriorated even further.  The church warned people it would be a severe sin to vote Labour and placed the leadership under an interdict.  The Labour party split again, with Pellegrini forming the Christian Workers Party (CWP).  Dr Ganado, opposed to independence, split off from the PN to form the Democratic Nationalist Party (DNP).

The 1962 election saw the PN gain 25 of 50 seats with 42% of the votes.  The MLP with 34% gained 16 seats, the CWP and DNP 4 seats each and the Progressive Constitutional party, led by Miss Strickland, gained 1.  The PN formed an agreement with a member of the DNP so they could govern.

The Nationalist’s most notable achievement was the gaining of Independence in 1964 and they won the 1966 election with an absolute majority. After this, the MLP steadily increased its following, while the smaller parties faded away. 

In the 1971 election the Labour Party gained a majority by one seat, with only 20 votes difference, but they would retain power until 1987.  They extended social services; raised money by renegotiating military bases agreements with the British and NATO; introduced decimal currency and metrification, and nationalised banking and industry.  In 1974 Malta became a Republic, with a Maltese President as head of state.

In 1976, shortly after the PN lost the election, Dr George Borg Olivier stepped down as leader but kept his seat.  He was replaced by Dr Fenech Adami.  In 1979 the British bases left.  In 1980 Dr George Borg Olivier passed away.  A huge funeral was organised by the Labour government.

The 1981 election was controversial, as the MLP gained 34 seats with 46.5% of the vote but the PN only gained 31 seats with 51.8%!  This led to a huge controversy.  In 1984, Dom Mintoff stepped down as leader but kept his seat and was succeeded by Dr Mifsud Bonnici. The constitution was amended (Section 52) to ensure that the percentage vote translated to an equivalent number of seats. 

In the 1987 election, the PN under Fenech Adami gained power by a narrow margin but would lead until 1996.  They liberalised and reinvigorated the economy, shifted alignment away from Libya towards the European Union and invested in infrastructure, especially roads.150217 Albert MS 

In 1996, Dr Alfred Sant became leader of the MLP and against all odds won the election by one seat but Mintoff voted against the party over a land deal and the government fell. 

Dr Sant called an election in 1998 and Labour lost to the PN by 5 seats.  Malta entered the EU in 2004 and Dr Fenech Adami, waiting until he had served a few months longer than Mintoff, stepped down and was replaced by Dr Gonzi, nephew of the famous Gonzi.  He won the 2008 election with the closest margin ever. In 2011 a referendum in favour of divorce was passed.  Dr Mintoff died in 2012, aged 96, and a huge funeral was held in his honour. Dr Sant stepped down and was replaced by Dr Muscat.

The election of 2013 was a landslide victory not seen for 40 years, with Labour gaining 39 seats to the National’s 30.  Dr Gonzi stepped down and was replaced.

Malta continues to be a prosperous and stable democracy, the product of sixty years of constitutional development, leading to Independence, the formation of a republic and strict proportionality in parliamentary representation, with a fully entrenched two party system.


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