Why do Third Parties consistently Implode?

With a parliamentary democracy and a proportional representation single transferrable voting system, Malta should have a thriving democracy. Our parliament is on paper most likely of all to contain multiple parties, each cross-checking one another. This level of democratic solidity should be translating to fortified independent institutions overseeing the rule of law in Malta. Why then, do we find ourselves in a situation which by all indications is the worst one since the birth of the Maltese Republic? Why then are we stuck with two tribes controlling the totality of our country, which as time passes continue to poison our state, with what used to individual misconduct, growing to widespread unseen illegalities, elevating itself into sickening open corruption, and now finding itself as the cancerous tumor we’ve inflicted unto our own country? Why don’t other parties manage to break the barrier?

The following is a short answer to the questions asked. One might notice that the topic of tribalism and party-politics was left out of the reasons. This is being done purposely, as it will be treated at a later stage due to the vast number of angles from which one can approach the phenomenon.

Reason 1: Improbability of Significance

One of the most prevalent elucidations for the failure of third parties, is the very fact that they are third parties. When you go to the ballot, you want your vote to count. The ironic problem with third party candidates, is that the chances of them getting elected are low by default. This effect dispels many voters who do not want their vote to ‘go to waste’. The same issue carries into the independent media. Simply speaking, the lower your chance of winning, the less relevance you find yourself carrying.

Brain not Ego is one such example – Antoine Borg had a consistently moderate policy line, one often not far off from that of most candidates hailing from PL/PN (but without the party element) yet failed to make a substantial impact. This is because even if the policy proposals of candidate A (main party) and candidate B (third party) are identical, the voter is far more likely to opt for candidate A, both due to the security of having party lines holding that candidate in place, but more so because of the added significance of the vote when given to a more likely winner.

Antoine Borg speaks at an event organised by JCI Malta
Figure 1: Antoine Borg speaks at an event organised by JCI Malta

Reason 2: Lack of Ability to build a Voter Base

As we already said, the less chance you have, to be elected, the less chance you have to win someone’s vote. But in order to win someone’s vote, you need to galvanize public interest in you and your cause. But not only do you need people to be interested, you also need people willing to invest vast amounts of energy into the movement. Now, although in the beginning this may seem viable, reality soon shows us its ugly side. When a small number of people are faced with the steep uphill slope of surviving as an organization, over months and years, often with little to no resources to employ, and on top of all that, the strength and consistency needed to carry through a political message, things start to look quite dim and sparks often die.

Alternattiva Demokratika comes to mind here. Yes, the second part of this reason might not apply as much to AD as the party has managed to stand the test of time for a long enough period to be considered a regular at the polls. But it has never managed to grow a consistent voter base, and seldom succeeded in energizing enough people to gain some sort of momentum. It is for this reason that AD has for quite some time now, sat static with regards to electoral results and does not seem to be showing any signs of renewal in the near future, much less with the recent parting from veteran Arnold Cassola, now an independent.

Alternattiva Demokratika officials speaking to local press about the party’s stance on Carbon Neutrality
Figure 2: Alternattiva Demokratika officials speaking about the party’s stance on Carbon Neutrality

Reason 3: The Ego Avoirdupois

A common problem one can easily notice when analyzing most third-party attempts, is how often they are led by people who seem to care more about their own triumph as third parties, than the success of the third-party concept.

A golden example of such occurrence is the Partit Demokratiku. Upon hearing the name, you might think of individuals like Marlene or Godfrey Farrugia, Timothy Alden, Anthony Buttigieg, Martin Cauchi Inglott. But allow me to put you on the spot, what policy do you think of when hearing the name Partit Demokratiku? Hell, what political position do you think of? Most probably, your answer is blank on both. This is because all the energy expended to push the party, was done with the individuals’ success and opinions in mind, never a consistent line of thought in sight. This, added to the previous two reasons, continue to frustrate the electorate into staying with the relative security of PL/PN.

Partit Demokratiku officials after having co-opted five new members to its executive
Figure 3: Partit Demokratiku officials after having co-opted five new members to its executive

Interestingly though, of the three problems discussed, one stands out. The latter is the only one of the three which lays under the control of those who decide to undertake the mission. If people commit to work for that which others will enjoy, not wanting or expecting any thanks in any form, be it words or votes, then maybe the ground works may be lain, for those who will work to beat problem 2, to stand on. It is then that the improbability of significance can truly be faced and challenged, and the duality confronted seriously.

Written by: Gianluca Vella


2 thoughts on “Why do Third Parties consistently Implode?

  1. Nicely put guys – and thanks for the shout out!

    There is a distinction to be made between national and European elections too. In a national election, the system is set so that the party with the largest number of votes gets the majority of seats. This clause effectively makes coalitions unnecessary (coalitions can never be created. Does this make them illegal?)
    At this level, therefore, your vote for your party counts even if the candidates you vote for have no hope of getting elected.
    This manner of thinking enhances and reinforces tribalism.

    At a European election, you choose a candidate not a party, but people are tribal because they’re encouraged to be. This means that you will prefer to give “your” party a #1 vote and will give others #2, etc votes. I saw this up front where I got a substantial number of second preference votes.

    But it’s the #1 votes that count the most. Without enough of those, I didn’t last long enough in the game to inherit from others.

    Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Antoine, thanks as always for this detailed feedback. Hope you’re well in these confusing times. To be honest I had to read that a couple times to understand what you wanted to say but I think i finally got it. The point if i understood well is that a vote for a ‘low chance’ candidate will count significantly more if that candidate belongs to a party rather than independent. Of course in the article I ran with the assumption that a party candidate by nature has more potential to win than an independent, irrelevant of their own popularity, so maybe that compensated for the significance point (even though it is an incorrect assumption and was made only to keep the text shorter)

      On tribalism needless to say that we’re agreed, its effects are terrible and I honestly don’t see how it can be countered effectively, if even students are growing up in that environment at their post secondary institutions and university sadly…hopefully we can slowly inch towards it through our work (by our i mean the entirety of civil society ideally)

      Thanks a lot for taking time to read as always, and will take your suggestions as notes for the next article:)

      Liked by 1 person

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