On April 11th Malta will have its third post-Independence referendum. The first such referendum was the crucial one to determine Malta’s EU entry in 2003 while the second centred on the introduction of divorce in 2011 – up to that time Malta (along with the Philippines and the Vatican City) was one of the last remaining countries in the world without divorce legislation – an uncomfortable state of affairs, with couples requiring such legislation having to obtain their divorce in a third country. After a somewhat heated campaign the introduction of divorce was approved by 53% of the electorate.
While the divorce referendum was brought about by a private member’s bill through Parliament, the referendum this month – concerning the proposed outright ban of the limited hunting season in spring – was brought about by popular demand using a law that allows the collecting of signatures to abrogate specific laws.
Although hunting in spring is generally outlawed in the EU, Malta had successfully negotiated for a limited season for two species – turtle dove and quail – a much loved ‘tradition’ for Maltese hunters. Repeated infringements and targeting of protected species have resulted in anger and repulsiveness by the non-hunting population and the initiative was taken by NGO’s to try to overrule the derogation that allows spring hunting. When enough signatures were collected, government had to bow and announce the referendum.
It is a somewhat strange referendum which clearly the two main parties are uncomfortable about since they see the hunting lobby (there are roughly 10,000 hunters) as an influential one in a country where elections are frequently won and lost by a few thousand votes. Both major parties are in fact not campaigning leaving the field open to environmentalists and hunters. Both party leaders have however indicated that they will vote to retain the derogation.
The environmental NGO’s have started a low key campaign – highlighting past infringements (some quite serious), preservation of species and the opening up to the public of areas which during the hunt are basically hunters’ reserves – the Mizieb woodland is one such area.
If the NGO’s have been low-key the hunting community has, if anything, been more so. Its main platform is of a right legally obtained from the EU which is now in jeopardy and of a ‘tradition’ which could die out. More subtly the hunters have hinted that other pastimes could suffer the same fate – this is aimed at targeting fireworks enthusiasts in particular. Though a highly unlikely scenario this last is in fact being seen as a potentially effective scaremonger. Hunters’ families and relatives are also largely sympathetic to the hunters’ cause.
While recent polls have shown a slight swing in favour of stopping hunting in spring, the outcome remains far from certain, and voter apathy (as elsewhere on the continent) could ultimately play to the hunters’ advantage. The referendum requires a 50% voter turnout in order to be validated.
What is certain is that this referendum is a healthy novelty as far as people power is concerned and shows that where politicians have long been dithering over this thorny issue, a good section of the population demanded otherwise. Whether the outcome will be successful for the referendum’s proponents remains to be seen.