A paradoxical election

The high number of non-voters also suggests that a large segment may not feel represented in the current two-party set up anymore; and this should increase pressure for electoral reform

The election result turned out to be somewhat paradoxical, in the end. On one level, it exposed a groundswell of disenchantment with the political system, which saw one-fifth of voters (nearly 70,000 voters) either abstaining, spoiling their vote, or voting for a third party.

However, this failed to impact on Labour Party’s ‘super majority’: which has actually increased from 35,000 in 2017, to over 39,000 votes today; notwithstanding the fact that both parties lost support to abstention in this election (including Labour, which lost around 8,000 votes).

In a nutshell, this means that although both parties have lost support since 2017 level - to the extent that even Labour, despite winning big, now enjoys the trust of less than 50% of all registered voters - it was the PN which was punished the most, by far: both by voter-abstention, and also by a swing to Labour.

Clearly, this is an indication that the Nationalist Party’s brand has become so toxic, that voters keep on rejecting it in ever-larger droves; and it was only reinforced by the failure of some of the PN’s most vociferous firebrands to even get elected.   

Moreover, while the PN lost more votes to abstention than Labour, there was still enough disenchantment within the Labour camp to provoke a massive, last-minute drive to ‘bring out the vote’. Clearly, very few voters – Labour or Nationalist - thought that reducing (or increasing) the gap between the parties was really a priority.

This suggests that for most voters, an election is all about simply choosing which party is best in governing the country. And while the third-party vote (particularly for the Greens) has shot up unexpectedly, this pales in comparison to the 85.5% rate of abstention itself: an indication that disenchanted voters preferred blowing a raspberry by not voting at all, than lending support for any of the alternatives on offer.

But what does this tell us about the future of the country? Clearly, part of the answer is that Labour has won because of its merits, and not only ‘in spite of its shortcomings’.   The increase in abstention, even within Labour’s camp, suggests that voters were aware of these shortcomings; but the PN was nowhere near capable of capitalizing on this sentiment, simply because it was not perceived as a credible alternative government, ready to take the helm of the country.

Survey after survey has shown that Labour is not trusted on corruption and the environment; nonetheless it is still seen as a better alternative on managing the economy.   

Nor can one underestimate the importance given by mainstream voters to unity and stability, at a time when the PN’s brand has been riven by disunity over the years.  In this context, Labour’s use of the power of incumbency – such the distribution of cheques on election eve - was merely the cherry on the cake. It was unnecessary, and something which is best avoided anyway; but which, alone, cannot be the sole explanation for why the Labour Party won the electorate’s trust so convincingly (as argued by Bernard Grech).

Moreover, the tendency of some PN supporters to cringe at working class voters, who are thankful to Labour for these small favours, only serves to further alienate this demographic: especially in a context where the opposition failed to offer working-class voters a fairer deal, by addressing bread-and-butter issues (also neglected by Labour) such as low wages.   

What is certain is that the PN’s problems run much deeper than a mere question of personalities. They also arise from the party’s inability to hold together an electoral block of liberals and conservatives, that was once kept on board by issues such as the EU.

Moreover, by reinventing itself as a ‘pro-business party’, Labour has further disoriented the opposition by moving deep into its own traditional territory.  It may even be possible that the PN’s poor results also reflect this very seismic shift: with Labour emerging as the new political centre.

Nonetheless, the risk of a weakened opposition is now very evident.  For while Prime Minister Robert Abela has wisely emphasized ‘humility’ – for how long, remains to be seen - he will now face a demoralized opposition, which faces the daunting task of sorting out its own mess, before being in any position to criticize the government.

In the next months, there is a risk that government will ride roughshod over any civic-minded opposition.  In this sense, civil society  - especially that part which is not too closely associated with the PN - will have an important role in standing up to powerful lobbies which continue to curry favour with Labour.

The high number of non-voters also suggests that a large segment may not feel represented in the current two-party set up anymore; and this should increase pressure for electoral reform.   

Lastly, the election result also poses a dilemma for the media, which has to tread carefully between irreverence towards power, and the need for sobriety in acknowledging legitimate popular aspirations.  At MaltaToday we promise to stand with civic-minded citizens:  in holding government and big business to account, while offering a fair and sober analysis which does not look down on, or denigrate voters.