[ANALYSIS] Turf wars in the 2017 election

Who are the most strategic categories of voters who can provide a path to victory to Labour or PN? James Debono asks

james
James Debono
31 May 2017, 12:00pm
Young, new voters are more likely to vividly recall the scandals of this administration rather than those of the previous one, which occurred in their teens
Young, new voters are more likely to vividly recall the scandals of this administration rather than those of the previous one, which occurred in their teens
Labour’s victory path passes through the following stages: retaining as many switchers as possible, compensating any losses among switchers and disgruntled Labourites by winning over enough PN voters doing well under this administration, and winning a majority of new voters. The PN’s victory path passes through the following stages: recovering a significant number of switchers, winning back PN voters who abstained in 2013, winning a chunk of traditional Labour and AD voters and keep the pace with Labour among new voters. Possible shifts in particular districts like Gozo could be an added bonus for the PN.

New voters

In 2013 there were 19,000 new voters who accounted for 6% of the general electorate. While many of these voters may vote according to family background, voters in this age group (18- to 21-year olds) may also have different aspirations and priorities than older voters.  

In view of the expansion of post secondary education and stipends, these voters, many of whom live in the home of their parents, may be less likely to vote on bread and butter issues and may be more liberal in outlook.  

In this sense Labour’s social liberalism may sway some of these voters. This also explains the PN’s dramatic shift from a party against divorce to a party in favour of gay marriage. The PN may have an edge in presenting itself as the anti-establishment party in this general election.  

The David vs Goliath factor may well work in the PN’s favour, although Muscat’s larger than life and macho image may strike a chord with another segment of new voters.

Images and memes on the social media may also be more likely to capture the imagination of this group. This explains Labour’s constant efforts to belittle the Opposition leader, even if in some cases these backfired, as happened in a video uploaded by Forum Zghazagh Laburisti a couple of hours after the University General Election Debate showing Simon Busuttil taking off his jacket and tie post-debate which went viral, gathering 130,000 views in just over 12 hours. 

But while PL supporters were sharing it to make fun of Simon Busuttil, PN supporters were sharing it saying it actually made their leader look cool.

Moreover many of these voters are more likely to vividly recall the scandals of this administration rather than those of the previous one, which occurred in their teens.  But these voters may still associate the PN with its conservative stance in the divorce referendum.

Surveys so far show Labour having a small edge in this category but also show a high percentage of undecided and non-voters in this category.  

A high rate of abstention in this category may well reflect disenchantment with the political system but also an anti-political culture which may have flourished as rival parties engaged in a tit for tat with one scandal used to neutralise another.

Switchers 

Switchers might find an alternative in the PD formation fronted by former Labour MPs Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia
Switchers might find an alternative in the PD formation fronted by former Labour MPs Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia
Retaining or recovering switchers – a label given to traditional PN voters who opted for Labour in 2013 – is of crucial importance for both major parties.  

This is why the PL has deployed former Nationalists like TV host Karl Stagno Navarra and candidate Ian Castaldi Paris. On the other hand the PN has in recent months paraded a number of role models for switchers returning back to the fold.  

Outspoken television personality Salvu Mallia’s appeal was restricted to the most angry segment of this category, many were alienated by his dose of divisive discourse. But the same cannot be said of Godfrey Farrugia, a former Labour minister known for his gentle ways, or entrepreneur Claudine Cassar, who stood on the soapbox for Labour in 2013 and now has switched back to the PN.

Yet recovering all switchers remains a very unlikely prospect for the PN, simply because some of these switchers may be happy with Labour’s performance in the economy while others may have even benefitted from Labour’s policies in various areas. This means that for the PN to win it also needs to appeal to other categories, namely former PN voters who abstained in the 2013 election, AD voters and  traditional Labour voters.  

PN voters who abstained in 2013 may be the easiest target, especially since the party now has found a narrative and a rallying cry in the corruption issue.  

AD voters, especially those who voted PN prior to 2013, may be another easy target, especially in view of the public backing of former AD chairperson Michael Briguglio.  However, traditional Labour voters will be more difficult to catch in the net. 

The disgruntled Labourite

Ultimately Labour also has a strong electoral machine and the power of incumbency to neutralise Farrugia’s switch and recover these voters
Ultimately Labour also has a strong electoral machine and the power of incumbency to neutralise Farrugia’s switch and recover these voters
Disgruntled Labourites can help the PN’s prospect in two ways: by staying at home and, even more, by switching. If they stay at home they will simply deduct votes from Labour’s net. But if they switch, their vote will increase the PN’s first count tally. One way of doing this is by enticing these voters to vote for the PN’s junior coalition partners, the Democratic Party led by former Labour MP Marlene Farrugia. 

But it was former Labour minister and whip Godfrey Farrugia’s candidature which may have been most effective in this sense, given his popularity among Labour voters.

Ultimately Labour also has a strong electoral machine and the power of incumbency to neutralise Farrugia’s switch and recover these voters. The MaltaToday survey has shown the number of Labour non-voters declining over the past months while a small strategic category (some 3% of the PL’s 2008 cohort) has shifted to the PN.

But the Torca survey still showed 8% of Labour voters intent on not voting. But while disgruntled Labourites may provide a path to a PN victory, one serious obstacle to this could be the happy Nationalist, that category of voters who prospered under Muscat.

The happy Nationalist

The PL may also be banking on compensating losses among switchers and disgruntled Labourites by some gains in the PN’s 2013 cohort. Surveys show that these efforts are not entirely unsuccessful. Surveys show that between 2% and 4% of PN voters in 2013 have switched to Labour. By moving his party to the centre-right on economic issues while retaining a centre-left appeal on social issues, Muscat may be still banking on a small shift of Nationalist voters coming to his rescue. This may also include traditionally Nationalist-leaning categories who are benefitting from the construction and property boom.

The gay vote

The PL’s identification with the gay community was further underlined by a speech by choreographer Felix Busuttil
The PL’s identification with the gay community was further underlined by a speech by choreographer Felix Busuttil
The MGRM estimates that 7% of the Maltese population is gay. But the gay vote is greater than the sum of gays, lesbians and transgender people. It also includes their families, friends and liberally minded heterosexuals. While in 2013 it was only AD who favoured gay marriage, in this election both major parties advocate full marriage equality.

But Labour may be banking on resentment towards the PN’s decision to abstain on civil unions in April 2014. The PL’s identification with the gay community was further underlined by a speech by choreographer Felix Busuttil. But the PN have fielded Alex Mangion, Malta’s first transgender candidate whose chief merit is that of not making a fuss of his gender identity and focusing on political issues.

 

Hunters

Outspoken television personality Salvu Mallia’s appeal has been restricted to the most angry segment of the switchers’ category
Outspoken television personality Salvu Mallia’s appeal has been restricted to the most angry segment of the switchers’ category
The hunting lobby has for the past years conditioned both major political parties.  With the PN desperate to narrow the gap in rural districts in south-western Malta and Gozo, Busuttil made firm commitments to retain hunting in spring. This may come as a double-edged sword for a party whose electorate backed the ban on spring hunting. Still probably this issue has been obscured by corruption. The PL has tried to exploit differences between Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party and the PN on this issue and has hinted at reducing hunting fines in reply to Busuttil’s announcement that he voted in favour of spring hunting.

But beyond paying lip service to the lobby, the issue seems to have been defused in this election.

Gozitans 

Gozo, where the PN has seen its vote share slump from 55% in 2008 to 50% in 2013 and Labour increase its share from 43% in 2008 to 49% in 2013, is considered to be a very strategic district which could determine the outcome of the next general election. 

Winning back a seat majority is also of great symbolic importance for the PN. While the PN won a slight majority of votes in Gozo it ended up winning two seats against Labour’s three.  

While Labour may benefit from its power of incumbency and Giovanna Debono’s fall from grace in view of a court case instituted against her husband in the works for votes scandal, the PN may benefit from disappointment at the lack of visible projects in Gozo, opposition to the privatisation of the island’s hospital and the perceived rift between Labour strongman Anton Refalo and other Labour candidates.

According to a MaltaToday survey conducted in January the Nationalist Party enjoys a small two-point lead over the Labour Party in Gozo. 

The PN has aggressively targeted Gozitans, coming up with a specific manifesto for the sister island which includes a promise to waive all property stamp duty for first-time buyers in Gozo and a €10,000 grant to young families who buy a house in Gozo.  

Labour has not won a majority of votes in any general election in the Gozo district since 1955 but came close in 2013 when it won the majority of seats. 

Labour’s support in general elections between 1971 and 2008 had always hovered between 40% and 46%. 

With the notable exception of 1987, Labour always ended up winning the general elections when it secured more than 45% of the Gozitan vote, which has now grown to some 30,000. 

One factor favouring Labour is the power of incumbency, especially after a first term in government. After being elected to power in 1987, it was the PN which managed to increase its majority in Gozo by five percentage points from 1987 to 1992. But that was also thanks to an economic boom and the setting up of a Gozo Ministry led by Anton Tabone. 

Labour saw its share of the vote increase by 5% in the 1996 election. The premature fall of Alfred Sant’s government saw the party losing three points in Gozo against four points nationally – an indication that the party fared better in Gozo than in the rest of Malta. 

The 2003 election saw Labour losing a further two points, dipping to 40.8% – its worst result in Gozo since 1992. This corresponded with a strong affirmation of the ‘Yes’ vote in the EU referendum. The 2008 election saw no remarkable shift to Labour. In this election, Labour won 42.9% of the Gozitan vote – an increase of two percentage points over its 2003 tally. The PL’s relative majority in the June 2009 MEP elections represented the party’s best result in Gozo since the 1955 general election. This was followed by Labour winning three seats out of five in the 2013 general election despite falling short of a majority of votes.

The battle for the south and west

In 2013 the PN suffered its worst results in the south and the western part of Malta
In 2013 the PN suffered its worst results in the south and the western part of Malta
In 2013 the PN suffered its worst results in the south and the western part of Malta.  In the south, the PL obtained four seats in the second, third, fourth and fifth districts.   In former elections this was the case only in the second. Although the election is decided on first count votes and not seats, any PN recovery has to start in the Labour heartlands in the south. This also indicates that switchers, often associated with middle class pale blue voters, also include working class and rural voters. This may also explain the direct pitch Simon Busuttil is making towards Labour voters in these localities. 

Joseph Muscat’s decision to contest the fifth district indicates that Labour’s fourth seat in the district, consisting of Zurrieq, Birzebbugia, Kirkop and Mqabba is under threat. In 2013, the PN was some 300 votes away from securing two quotas and with Marlene Farrugia contesting the district on the PN ticket Labour could lose a seat. 

The third and fourth districts could also see the PN return to 2008 levels when it had won two seats on both districts. In 2013, the PN was 300 votes short of securing two quotas in the fourth district while the third district could be the hardest for the PN as it was 800 votes short of two quotas.

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...