A nine-week rollercoaster

The 2013 electoral campaign promises to be a rollercoaster.

The 2013 electoral campaign that took off in earnest last Monday promises to be a nine-week rollercoaster with the political parties' fortunes subject to various mood swings as a result of the campaign itself. It is a time when mistakes and gaffes could prove fatal.

Labour has started on a high note with its proposal on its promise to reduce electricity tariffs, which has been practically the only talk of the town for the first week. Indeed, this particular issue is threatening to turn this electoral campaign into a one-issue campaign.

On the other hand, the slogans chosen by the two parties reflect far wider issues. Labour's 'Malta Taghna Lkoll' is an emotional message aimed at those who feel they have been somehow excluded from participating in our society by the PN administration. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. This is a matter of perception that has registered on survey polls, and Labour has latched on it. Its first billboards reflect the idea with different photos of people to reflect everyone having the same sentiment. The problem is that these people are all of typical Mediterranean stock with the looming problems resulting from multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity in our society being completely ignored.

The PN made a weak hint on its efforts to embrace diversity in the multicoloured 'flower' near its more down to earth slogan - Futur fis-sod - that tries to latch on the positive achievements of the incumbent administration in education, health and job creation while ignoring its failures and embarrassments. Practically, the PN is selling 'more of the same' in a positive sense. Their first billboard, however, is a disappointment, simply showing Lawrence Gonzi (defender of the status quo) with Simon Busuttil (the change mover). It sends no tangible or emotional message whatsoever.

The opening salvos were messages to party faithful. Joseph Muscat subtly told his followers to forget they are 'Laburisti', implying that tribal politics are out, as we are all Maltese. In his first speech on Monday, Muscat made no mention of political parties and was not greeted with Labour Party flags but only with Maltese and EU flags - as the PN had done in the referendum on EU membership ten years ago. It is as if he was telling his diehards not to brag because they are 'Laburisti' raring to go on the eve of a Labour victory. Instead, as from now, they are to see the light and miraculously convert to a way of life where they respect everybody and do not ridicule those who do not agree with Labour... for these are also Maltese who will also participate in the society Muscat wants to see. Quite a tall order for some, of course!

Lawrence Gonzi told his followers to forget all about what the polls are saying as he and the PN are in the race to win. In the circumstances it is obvious that the PN stands no chance of winning unless it believes it can do it, and therefore the reinforcement of the belief that it can win is very important. His message emphasised the logic that follows from the PN administration's successes and posits two questions to the electorate. Why take chances by trying something that nobody can vouch for; and why risk what we have achieved to date?

However, since Tuesday, the campaign took an unexpected turn when Labour unveiled its proposals on the electricity sector. Despite their having taunted Muscat for so long for not revealing how he intended to deliver his promise to reduce electricity tariffs, the PN were obviously taken by surprise. It took up to Thursday until Minister Tonio Fenech held a press conference during which he presented a structured and coherent reply to Labour's proposals. These had led to Labour setting the pace while the PN had to resort to a defensive stance during almost all the first week of the campaign. Labour, of course, promptly replied to Fenech within hours with a hastily arranged press conference. Clearly, things cannot go on as they are.

The PN did publish an electoral manifesto but this is just a declaration of principles and the setting out of general aims. Although it aims to please the more liberally minded voters, there is nothing controversial in this manifesto. It will only be the electoral programme that will set out the party's concrete proposals for the next five years. Labour has just concentrated on its promise of reducing electricity tariffs and there are hardly any signs of any other proposals.

Strictly speaking, it is only after the two parties publish their electoral programmes that serious discussions can be launched by either party on the theme of how much 'we will be better than the others'.

Apart from Labour's promise on electricity tariffs, up to now voters know nothing on what parties propose to do in the next five years if elected to govern Malta. The positive aspect of the campaign will have to wait until electoral programmes are finalised and published. This is also a matter of timing.

Labour's campaign is slick and effective, but can it sustain its initial tempo for a whole nine weeks? Perhaps it suits the PN to be negative at this stage of the campaign and it is lying low to ensure the crescendo of its campaign towards the last week and avoid peaking too early, as Labour is risking doing! I am sure that this possibility cannot be discounted.

One has to realise that this is the longest election campaign since the three-month campaign that dragged on in 1987. Ever since, electoral campaigns have usually been just five weeks long. So this time around, the timeframe is different. And this might cause upsets.

Of its nature, an electoral campaign is a ride on a rollercoaster. There are periods when one party is up and one is down and other times when it is the other way round. The trick is to time your crescendo with the last day or two before the election date.

With a nine-week-long campaign, this becomes even more difficult.

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