The only loser is democracy

Under such circumstances, one cannot expect the same voter enthusiasm that has characterised elections in the past

Throughout this campaign (and even before) there was a general perception that the eventual result would be a ‘foregone conclusion’. And with all polls and surveys pointing towards a continuation of Labour’s winning streak – differing only in the precise margin of victory – the prospect of a last-minute change in electoral fortunes, does indeed seem rather remote.

Nonetheless, the campaign has still thrown up a few ‘surprises’. For instance: while a drop in voter turn-out was all along to be expected – given that the rate of electoral participation has always dropped slightly, in every election since 1971 – no one could realistically have expected that it would dip so sharply, from 2017 to today.

As with every other previous election, a percentage of the electorate has, in fact, already cast their vote. And according the Electoral Commission, only 85.15% turned up to these early voting sessions: down from 91.7% in 2017.

If this is an indication of the final turn-out – and it usually is – then it suggests that the rate of abstention in 2022, may be even higher than the 12% predicted by this newspaper’s running poll.

Meanwhile, there are 14,473 voters who have already abstained, by refusing to pick up their voting document before last Thursday’s midnight deadline. This equates to 4.1% of eligible voters: almost double the 2.4% of 2017.

Regardless of the actual result, then, it is safe to predict that Elections 2022 will be characterised by a much higher rate of voter-disillusionment than we are accustomed to. This in turn also explains the note of urgency that crept into both Labour and PN’s campaigns, as election day drew nearer.

Understandably enough, both Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech are concerned: not just because both parties seem to be affected (albeit to different degrees) by this same voter apathy; but also because statistics indicate that this lack of interest in the political system, may extend substantially in future.

A recent MaltaToday survey, for instance, suggests that a staggering 40% of ‘new voters’ – a category that now also includes 16-year-olds, for the first time – have no intention of voting at all. The same survey reveals that almost 25% of respondents ‘trust neither Robert Abela or Bernard Grech’.

These considerations may not, in themselves, explain the sheer extent of the phenomenon: but they do point in a rather clear direction.

Indeed, it is not all that ‘surprising’ that this election would have elicited such low levels of interest, when one also considers that:

The very predictability of the outcome may have backfired on Labour, by convincing its less-enthusiastic supporters that their vote was not actually ‘needed’;

Both parties are plagued by internal divisions and discontent of their own (it is particularly ominous for the PN, for instance, that so many voting documents remained uncollected in the traditionally Nationalist 10th District).

Both parties have now gravitated so far towards the political centre, that there is now hardly any difference between them at all, at any ideological and/or policy level;

Both parties are traditionally beholden to precisely the same lobby-groups and commercial pressures (resulting in identical policy-platforms on virtually all the most sensitive issues in the country);

The actual ‘stakes’ in this election have never been higher than a simple continuation of a government that – whatever its other flaws – is both functional, and stable;

And lastly, that the entire campaign itself – on both sides – never really extended beyond a simply ‘popularity contest’ between two rather lacklustre party leaders: both of whom were at best disappointing, when it came to the substance of their actual political message.

Under such circumstances, one cannot expect the same voter enthusiasm that has characterised elections in the past: where the stakes were much higher; the campaign issues much more compelling; and above all, the prospect of a change in government so much more ‘consequential’.

From this perspective, the two parties only have themselves to blame, really, for failing to inspire the electorate with anything truly ground-breaking, or innovative. Moreover, there are lessons to be learnt even by the smaller parties: who have once again collectively failed to capitalise on the situation.

But the future implications of increasing voter-detachment – even if it is still in its early stages – go far beyond how Malta’s political parties are affected themselves. Ultimately, it is democracy itself that will emerge the loser, if voter participation drops too far beyond the (admittedly still high) 88% predicted by our polls.

Not just because of lower turnouts, in and of themselves; but rather, because of what the phenomenon portends… that is, a general detachment from the sacrosanct view that ‘We, The People’ are really the ones who are ‘in charge’.

Nonetheless, the buck stops with Malta’s political establishment to rise to this challenge – for democracy’s sake, if not their own – and to convince voters that the expression ‘every vote counts’ is more than just an empty, electioneering slogan.

But they cannot possibly do this, without first acknowledging their own responsibility for this state of affairs.