What will we be voting for?

The EP election cannot but be reduced to a referendum on Joseph Muscat’s first 14 months in government and Simon Busuttil’s record in Opposition: the result will have the value of a real and much more precise opinion poll.

In another three weeks, the citizens of the European Union member states are going to be asked to vote for a new European Parliament (EP) – an election across Europe that may see some substantial changes to the present setup between the political groupings in that Parliament.

The Maltese contribution is not expected to make a serious impact on this set-up, with the anticipated result of three seats for Labour belonging to the left of centre socialists (PES) and three seats for the PN belonging to the right of centre conservatives (PPS). The two largest political groups in the EP will hardly be threatened by some influx of Eurosceptics or extreme left or right wing MEPs elected from Malta.

Ever since Malta became an EU member, on the two occasions when Maltese citizens had the chance to elect their MEPs, the EP elections were held less than 18 months after the general elections, with the party in government getting a considerable number of votes less than it got in the general elections. Since less people bother to vote for the EP elections, the tally of both Labour and Nationalist parties is usually less than that in the election; but it was always the PN in government that lost most votes, to the extent of being beaten flat out by the PL in opposition.

The only party that actually gets more votes in the EP elections than in the general elections is Alternattiva Demokratika, which garnered almost 23,000 votes in the 2004 EP elections, following the 2003 general election in which their vote tally was less than 2,000. There is a historical reason for that impressive 23,000 figure but I will not delve into that in this contribution. Suffice to say that AD’s votes in the 2008 general election shot up to 3,500 while it got less than 6,000 votes in the 2009 EP election.

It is said that just after the election, when the party getting most votes starts to govern in prose after having campaigned in poetry, it is only natural that it loses some of the support that it had won in the election – to the advantage of the opposition party. This certainly applies when one considers the number of votes obtained by the PL and the PN in the 2004 and 2009 EP elections.

In the 2004 EP elections, votes for PN candidates got a staggering 48,500 votes less than in the 2003 election, a decrease of over 33%, while the LP only got some 15,000 less votes than in the 2003 election – a decrease of 11.25%. This change in electoral fortunes put Labour ahead in the EP elections. Practically the same thing happened in the 2009 election, when the PN saw a decrease of 30% of its votes while Labour’s tally decreased by only 4%.

Will the same sort of pattern emerge in the EP election results later this month? This time, there is an enormous difference, namely the staggering majority of votes that Labour got in last year’s election - 36,000 votes. This means that for Labour to get less votes than the PN, Labour must not only just lose votes in the way the PN lost votes in the two previous EP elections, but the PN must also buck the trend and increase its vote tally rather than decrease it as even Labour in Opposition did in 2004 and 2009. Muscat’s claim to be the underdog in this election is not borne out when the numbers are crunched.

The number of MEPs elected by the two parties can be easily foretold - they will get three each. It is the way the number of votes will sway that is interesting. The open question is therefore the numbers game. I reckon that Labour will see its vote tally decrease from its March 2013 astronomical figure, but it will still get a majority of votes despite it being in government - precisely because the 36,000 figure is so high.

Whether the PN will manage to get an increase in votes is a moot point. That would also be against the trend and will signify the beginning of a PN resurgence under Simon Busuttil, something that does not seem to be on the cards yet. However one must not forget that there were a number of traditional PN voters who switched to Labour in March 2013 and a ‘return to the fold’ of a substantial number of them might possibly do the trick.

As happens in practically all EU states, the votes garnered by different parties in the EP election reflect the state of the political issues going on at a national level, rather than what is going on at an EU level. People don’t tend to vote one way rather than another in reaction to the way the MEPs from their country voted on particular issues. Most of these are technical issues that the great majority of people are not interested in anyway.

In every EU state, votes in EP elections are a reflection of the current popularity of the political parties, with many daring to register a protest vote against the party they normally support.

If one looks at the current EP election campaign in Malta, people are being told to vote to approve what Muscat’s administration has achieved since March last year or to show Muscat the ‘yellow card’ – a warning that the abuses of his administration cannot be tolerated. This is the position of the two parties.

What the PES and the PPE are proposing for Europe is practically irrelevant to this debate. So are the ‘electoral programmes’ of the parties contesting the EP election. These are a list of pious wishes, anyway. After all, putting such a ‘programme’ in practice hardly depends on the support the different parties get from the Maltese electorate. What matters is the distribution of the elected MEPs from across Europe among the different political groupings in a Parliament where there is neither Government nor Opposition, as one finds in national Parliaments.

So the EP election later this month cannot but be reduced to a referendum on Joseph Muscat’s first fourteen months in government and Simon Busuttil’s record in Opposition during the same period. The result will have the value of a real and much more precise opinion poll. It will be excellent fodder for political analysts to be debated for some time until we have the next round of local council elections followed by the big test for both Muscat and Busuttil in 2018.

But until then, a lot of water – both murky and crystal clear – still has to pass under the bridge.

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