Behind Muscat’s victory – winning people’s hearts

Professor of psychology Paul A. Bartolo explains that Muscat’s landslide victory is again down to his inclusive discourse and action, and a credibility based on sticking to facts and delivering on promises

Paul A. Bartolo
14 June 2017, 9:56am
Muscat challenged Busuttil to provide evidence of the serious accusation of corruption against him... Busuttil failed to produce any
Muscat challenged Busuttil to provide evidence of the serious accusation of corruption against him... Busuttil failed to produce any
Most political observers were surprised at the magnitude of the election victory where Dr Joseph Muscat’s movement and Labour Party obtained 55% of the vote. There is a search for possible explanations. 

Firstly, one must note that the PL had maintained a strong lead over the PN in the polls (held every month by MaltaToday) throughout the past four years. This was in fact the third successive national election with similar historic results following the 2013 General Election and the 2014 European Parliamentary elections. And it seems that, despite the apparent different issues in last month’s election campaign it can be said that the same major contrasts between the PN and PL were at work. 

Of course the historic majorities obtained are the result of a multiplicity of factors coming together, including the recent history of the parties and current changes in society. For instance, in 2013 the PN had been in power almost uninterruptedly for 24 years, and in 2017 the PN had to recover from a gap of 36,000 votes with the PL four years earlier. However, some contrasts appear to have a more important impact on voters.

It has been demonstrated that the magnitude of the 2013 PL victory with a 54.8% majority vote was obtained mainly through Muscat’s effective use of an empathic and inclusive approach to the electorate in contrast to a divisive and exclusive PN approach (Winning People’s Hearts: How Social Inclusion and Exclusion Informed the 2013 Malta General Election Campaign – Malta University Publishing, 2015). That study had shown how first of all the “PN leadership had been perceived as an arrogant and exclusive ‘oligarchy’ while the PL projected a welcoming, open ‘Movement of progressives and moderates’”.

Muscat challenged Busuttil to provide evidence of the serious accusation of corruption against him
Muscat challenged Busuttil to provide evidence of the serious accusation of corruption against him
The PL had reached out firstly to all factions within the PL itself, and no less to the rest of the liberal electorate that believed in equality and solidarity, including the aspirations of both business enterprise and the working class. It had been clearly evident that, while the PN had been merely talking of needing to listen to the people, the PL had indeed listened empathically and embraced people’s aspirations. 

The same study had also argued how, in the Parliamentary Elections of 2014, despite the fact that the PN was accusing Muscat of breaking his promise of ‘Malta for all’, Muscat was still listening and trying to balance measures to meet the needs of all sectors and individuals while the PN still retained an ineffective exclusive stance of superiority.

It seems to me that Muscat challenged Busuttil to provide evidence of the serious accusation of corruption against him. When Busuttil failed to produce any, Muscat himself produced the evidence published by a blogger one hour earlier and challenged him to state whether he believed it or not; and, when Busuttil would not back its credibility, Muscat himself pointed out five faults in the document to prove that it was false and which Busuttil was not able to refute. Similarly, during the whole election campaign, Muscat repeatedly asserted that he would resign if ‘there was any indication’ that the accusation against him was true, and turned the tables on Busuttil who would not state that he would resign if it turned out to be false. 

This truthfulness challenge had in fact taken a turn a few weeks before the campaign. Busuttil had taken the habit of asserting that he was honest and ‘clean’ in contrast to the secret dealings of the government.

While the PN had been merely talking of needing to listen to the people, the PL had indeed listened empathically and embraced people’s aspirations
While the PN had been merely talking of needing to listen to the people, the PL had indeed listened empathically and embraced people’s aspirations
However, he stopped using the statement after it was alleged, in March 2017, that he was responsible for the creation of false invoices in order for his party to receive substantial amounts of money from business and, thus going against the Party Financing legislation. Muscat and his colleagues made a big meal out of this revelation and seemed to have restored to some extent some balance of political respect they had lost through the panama allegations.

Muscat further dented Busuttil’s attempt to present himself as the example of morality by alleging that he had arranged for an out-of-court settlement with an oil company which he had been defending for nine years and secured this arrangement from the Cabinet a few days after he was elected deputy leader of the governing party in 2012. 

Credibility issues in the election campaign

Muscat’s general political stance had indeed earned him higher trust ratings (that partially reflect belief in one’s truthfulness) than Busuttil throughout the past four years. The reasons for this are not clear but one may point to a contrast in their evaluation of events. Muscat has always shown a readiness to recognise others’ achievements, including those of the opposition, and has also been ready to admit the commission of mistakes.

Busuttil in contrast was very economical in recognising the very evident economic success of Muscat’s government. Busuttil was always too ready to cry wolf in his evaluations of the Muscat administration: before the 2013 election he predicted that a Labour government would lead to the need of a bailout in contrast to the ensuing economic boom; or suggesting that in selling Maltese passports Malta was selling our children only to declare during the election campaign that a PN administration would retain the scheme, thus accepting that selling passports may not be so bad after all), or stating during the campaign that the government had only built a latrine in Gozo when it had completed the magnificent restoration of the Gozo Citadel and succeeded in increasing tourism to Gozo with the subsequent positive financial impact on the Gozitan economy.

The PL amplified the fact that Busuttil made an obviously wrong calculation on the cost of increasing pensions by a specific amount
The PL amplified the fact that Busuttil made an obviously wrong calculation on the cost of increasing pensions by a specific amount
At the same time Busuttil hardly ever admitted to any mistakes and indeed often refused to consider them.

The second issue of credibility that is very important for effective leadership is whether the leader is able to deliver on his or her promises. Clearly Muscat had a great lead on this aspect. Busuttil had boasted that he had written the 2008 PN Manifesto which, however, included a lot of promises that were left unfulfilled. On the other hand, Muscat had even appointed one of his deputy leaders to take continuing action to ensure that what was promised in the PL 2013 manifesto was implemented.

Already in the 2014 European Parliamentary Elections campaign he had underlined that the PL had already implemented almost one third of its promises: ‘“14 months into the Labour government and we have implemented 33% of our electoral programme. Vote for us and give us the energy to change that 33% into a 100%”.

In last month’s election campaign Muscat made this as his main issue in two ways. First of all, he started the campaign by setting out a list of positive economic and other measures that, making reference to his record over the past four years, it was easy for people to believe that he would implement if elected. Secondly, having already the advantage that Busuttil was to some extent taken by surprise by the early call for the election, he was particularly focused on showing that Busuttil’s plans were ill conceived and could not be possibly implemented. Thus, a great meal was made by the PL out of the first proposal namely that of offering €10,000 to people who settled in Gozo when he was questioned about details and replied that the details would be given in the first 100 days of government.

Muscat’s three historic victories had multiple causes
Muscat’s three historic victories had multiple causes
Similarly, the PL amplified the fact that he made an obviously wrong calculation on the cost of increasing pensions by a specific amount. To crown it all, the PL worked out the costings of the PN promises to show that they either would not be implemented or, if implemented, they would lead to an unacceptable deficit.

Muscat’s three historic victories had multiple causes, but one can really make the case that his third success was again not due mainly to the economy, but due to his inclusive discourse and action, and his credibility based on a history of generally sticking closer to facts and delivering more effectively on his promises.

Prof. Paul A. Bartolo is the author of Winning People’s Hearts: How Social Inclusion and Exclusion Informed the 2013 Malta General Election Campaign – Malta University Publishing, 2015