Why is everyone so convinced there’ll be an early election, anyway?

And as we all know from experience: elections are much more like a time for “crushing your enemies; seeing them driven before you; and hearing the lamentation of their women” And it’s just one of those things: you can’t have both at the same time…

In a country where there are so many ‘fortune-tellers’ and self-styled ‘clairvoyants’… it just never ceases to amaze me, how many publicly-made predictions invariably turn out to be… erm… WRONG.

OK, I know, I know… I’m as guilty as anyone else on that score. Just a couple of months ago, for instance, I had a gut feeling that the Prime Minister would announce a snap election, to be held in October (that is to say, next month)…

And I wasn’t the only one, either. The Nationalist Party was clearly under the same impression: which explains why it is already in full election mode (more of this in a sec) from today. And I even know of a couple of businesses that took certain decisions – or, as the case may be, postponed taking certain decisions – specifically on the basis of that same, widespread assumption.

But then, fast-forward just a few short weeks… and that assumption can already be seen to have crumbled. The window of opportunity for an October election actually closed on September 16: which was the latest date that the six-week minimum election campaign, mandated by the Constitution, would have allowed for the possibility. (And this, by the way, is a great pity: because the election itself would have been held on Saturday October 30: just in time for Halloween…)

Now, however, we can all safely say that the next election will NOT be held in October after all. But what do you know? That only gave rise to yet another widespread assumption: this time, that Robert Abela would avail of yesterday’s Independence Day rally to announce a snap-election for November instead: i.e., shortly after an October 11 budget that will no doubt be replete with all the usual, election-buying ‘goodies’.

Well, guess what? That didn’t happen either. On the contrary, Robert Abela chose to keep us all guessing… by saying that: “This legislature doesn’t have more than nine months to it - but it hasn’t ended.”

Now: admittedly, the statement takes us no closer to predicting the date of the next election (and I imagine that was precisely the point). Abela didn’t exclude the possibility of a November target-date; and he is still perfectly in time to announce it immediately after the forthcoming Budget.

But it can only realistically be the last week of November; for after that comes the Christmas season… you know: the ‘time to be jolly’, and all that; when everyone is expected to be (sort of) ‘nice’ to each other, even if just for a couple of weeks...

And as we all know from experience: elections are much more like a time for “crushing your enemies; seeing them driven before you; and hearing the lamentation of their women” And it’s just one of those things: you can’t have both at the same time…

What this means in practice is that - if the next election is even to be held in 2021 at all - the only available opportunity left is between November 22 and (at the very latest) December 4. Conversely: if Abela is now aiming for a 2022 election instead… it could be any time between January 8, and… erm… JUNE.

So that one sentence, so casually uttered by the Prime Minister at Ta’ Qali yesterday, could just as well be interpreted as a timely reminder (and not even a very subtle one) that… hang on a second. Why is everyone so convinced that Robert Abela will call an early election, anyway? He has a full nine months to play around, if he so chooses; why, then, would he choose ‘sooner’, rather than ‘later’?

Well… what are waiting for? Let’s try and crack this mystery, once and for all.

The case for an early election

There are, admittedly, a few valid reasons for any prime minister to call an election before the expiry-date. Closing an eye at certain ‘force-majeur’ situations – such as, for instance, Alfred Sant losing a vote of confidence in 1998; or Joseph Muscat being forced to step down, by international pressure, in 2018 – a prime minister may easily come to the conclusion that: the longer he leaves it to call the next election… the more support he is likely to lose in the meantime.

I suspect, for instance, that this was the main reason why Eddie Fenech Adami chose to call the 1996 election a year early (with, let’s face it, tragic short-term consequences for the PN). Even with hindsight of the result itself, he very clearly had good cause – including, inter alia, the hugely unpopular introduction of VAT, and fiscal cash registers - to believe that his government was losing popularity at the time.

What he very evidently miscalculated, however, was the sheer extent to which that had already happened, by the time he did call that ill-fated shot. All the same, however: the example still illustrates a basic truism about early elections. That sort of decision can only ever make political sense, at a time when the government of the day feels that its support is on the wane.

Well… do I even need to continue? That simply doesn’t apply to Robert Abela’s Labour government at all. Indeed, with polls suggesting that his own popularity has (in spite of everything) consistently increased – and is still increasing to this day – Abela may even come to the clean opposite conclusion: i.e., that the longer he leaves it, the more his popularity will continue to grow… and the bigger the eventual margin of victory.

Unless, of course, he is also factoring in the possibility – another ‘widespread prediction’ that has yet to come true, by the way – that the coming months/years will also usher in a financial crisis (possibly due to Malta’s grey-listing; possibly because of the long-term effects of Covid-19, etc.).

This is, in fact, about the only other time when it might make political sense to go to the polls prematurely. And yes, there is certainly good reason to include it in Abela’s overall calculations, right now.

But while it is true that people tend to become sceptical about the current government, in times of economic uncertainty… their propensity to actually ‘switch sides’ also depends, to no small degree, on the existence of a credible alterative government-in-waiting. (Just to cite one other historical example: the financial crisis of 2008 did not translate into a change in government that same year… because too many people simply didn’t trust Alfred Sant enough to vote him back into power.)

And this, I fear, is precisely the situation facing today’s Opposition party, too. So if my gut feeling is correct (and of course, it could be way off target…) even a severe recession, of the kind that would topple any other European government, may prove insufficient to actually unseat Robert Abela at the moment: even, I suspect, if he leaves the decision to the last available minute.

The case for a full-term election

Naturally, this brings us to whatever reasons Robert Abela may have to postpone the decision, instead of hastening it. Let’s get a few obvious ones out of the way first. My earlier mentions of Alfred Sant and Joseph Muscat force us to confront the fact that the Labour Party has not actually completed a full five-year term since…. ooh, 1981-87, as it happens.

So it is by no means inconceivable that Robert Abela – even just for the sake of his party’s pride – may be hell-bent on bucking this particular trend, by actually making it all the way to the finishing-line for a change.

If so, he will surely also be buoyed by a few other considerations, too. It is no secret, for instance, that election campaigns are notoriously expensive things to run – they involve billboards; media-advertising; stocking up on hampers and fridge-freezers, to dish out as ‘freebies’ at political coffee-mornings… you know, stuff like that. (And I need hardly add that it all costs A LOT of money.)

Likewise, it is hardly a secret that – while both parties have their fair share of financial problems – the Nationalist Party is by far the more cash-strapped of the two.

From this perspective, Bernard Grech’s decision to start campaigning from now – when we could be anywhere up to nine months away from the election itself – also means that the PN runs the risk of simply ‘bleeding itself dry’.

And this would be a major consideration for Robert Abela’s election plans, even if the PN wasn’t also so fragmented and internally (irreparably, even) divided. Even the fact that Grech’s inaugural meeting was… shall we say, ‘punctuated’ by the awkward presence of Adrian Delia’s ‘blackshirts’: not to mention their refusal to applaud the party leader when he took the stage, and their tendency to still call Delia himself their ‘kapo’… it only gives us a small taster of what we can all expect, from a long, drawn-out campaign.

To put that another way: if the PN’s first meeting of the entire campaign was underscored by tensions between ‘Team Adrian Delia’ and ‘Team Bernard Grech’… what the heck is it going to be like by the time we reach the 20th, 30th or even 40th public meeting before the election? (There are, after all, 36 weeks in nine months, you know…)

Judging by how inauspiciously this campaign actually started for the PN… I reckon there might not even be anything left of that party at all, by the time a real election comes rolling along. And, um… whose political interest would that serve, at the end of the day? Bernard Grech’s… or Robert Abela’s?