A wake-up call to the Opposition

For ultimately, the greatest stumbling block for PN recovery is that voters still find it very difficult to perceive it as an alternative government

If a survey is a ‘snapshot in time’, the resulting photograph portrays worrying news for the Nationalist Party. 

It shows a landscape in which the PN has recovered some of the ground it lost under Adrian Delia; but has not managed to regain any of the territory it lost in 2013 and 2017.

While it is true that Bernard Grech has succeeded in re-compacting the core PN vote, the party as a whole is simply not making any substantial inroads across the political divide. The survey also reveals that it is losing traction among younger voters; while any gains in other areas are neutralized by the parallel movement of PN voters to Labour. 

On the plus side, the PN has managed to reduce the gap between the two parties from 27 points in July 2020, to only six points today. But Prime Minister Robert Abela still leads Grech by 11 points in the trust barometer; and this is very close to the gap between the two parties in the last general election.

Past surveys have shown that the gap between leaders is often closer to the election result, than the one between parties themselves. If this is true today, the PN can expect to lose the next election by a landslide similar to that of 2013.

But the worst news for the PN is that a decline, since March, of 9 points among those who trust neither of the two leaders, has translated into a 7-point increase in Abela’s trust rating. This suggests that Labour is already recovering some of the support it lost in recent surveys; even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the corruption scandals which have rocked the PL.

This has prompted many to ask: how is it even possible for Abela to retain such an unassailable lead, when facing so many problems? What is certain is that the hope among some PN pundits, that the PL would simply evaporate in the wake of truths emerging from the Caruana Galizia murder probe - has failed to materialize.

Roseyln Borg Knight was spot-on in identifying the PN's problem: "Evidently the PN is playing a broken record, its music does not resonate with the young and those who deserted will not return when they see that the reasons they left for are still there.”

Even Bernard Grech himself has recognized the problem. While he was overly optimistic in saying that the party has managed to ‘close the gap by half’ – something which is partly contradicted by the 11-point trust gap between the two leaders – Grech is right in saying that the party has to take hard decisions “without fear or favour” so that “the Nationalist Party can become the natural choice for an alternative government”.

For ultimately, the greatest stumbling block for PN recovery is that voters still find it very difficult to perceive it as an alternative government.  And to get there, the party needs a new team of relatable people, who can once again be trusted with the reins of government.

Many also complain about the lack of serious alternative policies; but the sad truth is that, while policies are important, they are useless if people who would be implementing them do not enjoy the full trust of the electorate.

The PN can, however, start addressing this problem: for instance, by electing two new deputy leaders, unconnected to the past, to give a forward-looking and inclusive image to the party. 

But the ‘broken record’ also includes past mistakes that must be atoned for. The PN cannot continue blaming its former voters for having trusted Labour in either 2013 or 2017. Its first priority should be to send an inclusive message to those who deserted it in the past.

The party also has to realize that Labour’s greatest ability, in the past decade, was that of changing its image, and attracting new talent. For too long, the PN fought Labour on the assumption that it was still the old ‘MLP’ of the 1980s: failing to realise that under Muscat, the PL had moved to the centre – and in some instances, to the centre-right – thus displacing the PN on its own home turf. 

Now, the party seems bent on fighting Abela on the assumption that he is Muscat’s clone: ignoring the reality that the new Labour leader is slowly but steadily salami-slicing his predecessor’s legacy. 

But it is not just the PN’s failure to make substantial inroads that comes as a surprise. It is also the failure of ADPD to gain any traction at all, in a situation where 40% of people under 35 are still undecided, or intent on not voting; and when a centre-left environmentalist party like AD is best poised to attract dissidents from Labour. 

In the absence of a credible and principled third-party, Maltese democracy would surely be poorer. This is why it would be a bad day for democracy, if ADPD were to die a slow death. 

But a democracy without a credible political Opposition party would be in graver danger still. This, too, is why the Nationalist Party has to take ‘tough decisions’ today, to avoid facing an even tougher situation tomorrow.