Voters cannot be taken for granted

But with a quarter of the electorate still adamant on ‘not voting at all’, the cohort of disgruntled voters remains too large for the comfort of both parties

There can be no doubt that – with the exception of those who may still be blinded by unconditional party allegiance - the latest MaltaToday survey, published last Sunday, sent shockwaves within the Labour establishment.

It appears that voters have punished the Labour Party for the Steward hospitals scandal – and possibly other issues, as well -  with the result that support for the PL has now plummeted to 30.8%: an eight-point decline since February.

More remarkably still, the gap between the parties – which stood at 56,000, at the beginning of last month – has been whittled down to just 8,500 votes. Significantly, this difference falls entirely within the margin of error, for the first time in years: effectively putting the PL just two points ahead of the Nationalist Party, which polled 28.4% (an increase of almost six points.)

It was, in fact, the worst result ever obtained by the Labour Party, since this newspaper has been conducting political surveys. And the timing clearly indicates that the Labour government suffered most of this backlash, as a result of the court ruling that annulled the Steward hospitals concession last month.

This was, perhaps, to be expected. Unlike previous allegations of ‘fraud’ or ‘corruption’ – often made with very little tangible evidence at hand - the hospitals scandal now has an unequivocal court decision, in which the judge did not mince his words about ‘fraudulent intent’. This places it well beyond the mere ‘allegation’ phase: there is now clear evidence of what has been described – rightly – as ‘the greatest swindle ever perpertrated, against the Maltese taxpayer’.

Moreover, the hospitals scandal was all along expected to have wider reverberations, also because of the sheer impact of that fraud on the National Health Service itself. Very little, at anything all, of what had been promised, was ever achieved. As a consequence, Gozo has remained without its promised ‘new state-of-the-art hospital’; and St Luke’s remains largely derelict and abandoned: with all those promises of ‘medical tourism’, up in the air.

And at a time when the rising cost of living pressure is taking its toll on people’s pockets, the scandal understandably assumed ever larger – and more meaningful – proportions, in the eyes of Nationalist and Labour voters, alike.

Conversely, the aftermath saw the PN put up a united front, which helped consolidate support for the party: as abundantly evidenced in the MaltaToday survey. Contrary to past surveys – especially the most recent: which represented the worst result for the National Party, in decades - the PN has clearly managed to claw back invaluable ground, among various cohorts of voters.

Nonetheless,  the survey remains a snapshot of the current situation; and all eyes will be on the months ahead to determine whether these findings develop into a consistent trend. It will be remembered that the Labour Party had also suffered a setback (albeit less pronounced) two years ago, at the height of the Covid pandemic; only to quickly recover afterwards.

However, the PL’s ability to repeat that performance today, will depend largely on how the government reacts to the court decision, in the coming weeks. The first thing Prime Minister Robert Abela will have to do, is ditch any notion of ‘aloofness’. He has so far insisted that the Steward contract was not of his own government’s making; but he must confront the fact that it is now very much his government’s problem, even if it was created by his predecessor.

Abela must also ensure that justice is served in all its forms; and his assertion that government will chase after Steward, to recover the money that was paid but invested, has to be translated concretely into court action.

But the Prime Minister also must explain what will happen to all the unfulfilled promises linked to the concession; and what he will do, to fully restore Malta’s National Health Service to its previous operational levels.

Meanwhile, the survey results show that people are angry for a myriad of reasons; and that the cancellation of the Steward contract appears to have been the proverbial ‘cherry on the cake’.

As such, the numbers suggest that the PL’s rock-solid majority cannot be taken for granted any longer; and Abela must now react to this reality.  For even if the PL does recover its lost support: last Sunday’s survey also shows that - under the right circumstances - people could be willing to desert the party, for other reasons.

Concurrently, the PN’s renewed unity remains crucial, for the party to offer a solid alternative as a ‘government-in-waiting’; but in doing so, the Nationalist Party cannot ignore the recent past; and needs to understand that voter transition is not an automatic process.

But with a quarter of the electorate still adamant on ‘not voting at all’, the cohort of disgruntled voters remains too large for the comfort of both parties. Much will depend on how well the PN articulates its alternative vision for government, that goes beyond merely ‘being anti-Labour’. But whatever strategy it comes up with, one thing is clear.

The days when political parties could ‘take their own voters for granted’, are very clearly over.