ROME: One of the ways in which the European Union effectively asserts the fundamental values of democracy and the rule of law is through its External Cooperation Programs, whereby, on the invitation of local authorities, it provides support in the form of electoral assistance projects and election observation missions.
So, during the course of 2009, the EU sent election observation missions to various countries, including Mozambique, Afghanistan, Guinea Bissau, Lebanon, Malawi, and Bolivia. Just this month the European Parliament sent observers to Ukraine’s presidential election. At the end of each mission, a couple of days after the election, the Head of Mission, who is normally a member of the European Parliament, first issues a preliminary report on the election and on the handling of the electoral process, followed by a final report a few months later.
On December 6 last year, Evo Morales was re-elected President of Bolivia with more than 60% of the popular vote. In her preliminary statement, the EU Head of Mission, MEP Renate Weber, stated that the electoral process had, in general terms, adhered to international standards with respect to democratic elections, and that the Bolivian Electoral Commission had acted in a transparent, neutral, and efficient way.
But the preliminary report also included some criticism that irked the Bolivian administration. In particular, the report stated that the country’s sharp political polarization was highly visible in the media, in particular on Bolivian television stations. In fact, while opposition candidates were given fair exposure on private TV and radio, the EU Head of Mission observed various cases in which their state-controlled counterparts privileged the government’s parliamentary candidates.
For example, Bolivia TV devoted 62.7% of its news bulletins to the government party’s candidates, whereas the seven opposition parties combined mustered only a 37.2% share. This, according to Weber, amounted to an “abuse of institutional propaganda.
I believe that it is important that the EU carries out such monitoring in non-EU states. But what about elections in EU member states? Shouldn’t what is good for the goose also be good for the gander?
I have in mind the two countries of which I am a citizen (Italy and Malta), where the media situation is an absolute disaster. More or less everybody is acquainted with the situation in Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi not only owns the three major private TV stations, but, as the head of government, also “manages indirectly at least two of the three state-owned TV channels. Media manipulation has become the order of the day in Italy, but, unfortunately, the EU, behaving on the premise that it will not interfere in internal matters, refuses to say a word about any of this.
The situation is even worse in the smallest EU member country, Malta. There, the only two political parties represented in parliament since independence in 1964 have ganged up to ensure for themselves an oligarchic duopoly on anything that goes on in the country.
The political leaders of the Nationalist (Christian Democratic) Party and the Labor Party have enacted a law whereby, since 1994, they alone share more than ?200,000 state financing. Not content with this, the two parties passed a law in 1992 that gave each of them – and no other parties – a national TV station. Getting greedier by the day, they then decided to share on a 50-50 basis both the National Electoral Commission and the National Broadcasting Authority.
Nor have they shrunk from constitutional tinkering in order to lock in their power. Indeed, they have changed the constitution three times since 1987 to ensure that every vote for the Nationalist Party and the Labor Party is given a higher weighting than votes received by any of the country’s other political parties when it comes to translating votes into parliamentary seats. All of this is happening not in some remote country, far removed from civilization. It is happening in an EU member state. When will the EU intervene to stop this internal rot?
Arnold Cassolais former Secretary General of the European Green Party and former Member of the Italian Parliament. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).