A battle for the switchers

Expect the next weeks to be tense, intense and heated. The parties will ponder whether to unleash pure hell through a negative campaign, or whether there are limits to dirty tricks. Surely the people want an intelligent and civil debate

Cartoon: Mikiel Galea
Cartoon: Mikiel Galea

The ‘switcher’ vote, those who delivered such a resounding victory to Labour in 2013, may have been at times romanticised as appertaining to a demographic of voters that has weak party loyalty, a thinking voter who is liable to change allegiance depending on personal expediency, or national urgency.

In 2013, Labour managed to consolidate its bases in the southern districts whilst the Nationalist vote suffered from less enthusiasm in its traditional strongholds. As this year’s snap election campaign intensifies, in a battle of perception that is also centred around the Prime Minister and his alleged connection to an offshore company (now subject to a magisterial inquiry), it is clear that this demographic, in its varied composition, will be having the final say on who will be taking the country forward.

For the parties, the messages are clear: Joseph Muscat wants the country to choose him for the strong economy; Simon Busuttil pledges a principled politics that is targeting corruption and the Labour leadership. Both parties have swamped the general public with a plethora of proposals that are intrinsically linked to advantageous fiscal measures for the Maltese voter. Both parties understand voters are generally motivated by measures that affect their pockets, be it grants or tax cuts.

In MaltaToday’s survey, voters’ intentions appear to have been specifically correlated to the two blocs’ battlecries: the two resounding messages will be Labour’s economic drive, versus the Nationalists’ battle against corruption. This is a difficult and tense tight-tope to negotiate for any voter. Nobody simply chooses between the economy or an anti-corruption drive; the journey to the voting booth is fraught with many other considerations, and voters weigh many other smaller and larger factors.

The next 20 days of the campaign will see both parties focusing on their strengths and the weaknesses of their adversaries. The diehards of both parties have entrenched themselves and the real battle now is for the switchers, that sizeable block of voters who contributed to Labour’s astounding electoral victory in 2013 with a 36,000 majority.

It is clear from most surveys, not only MaltaToday’s, that 34% of switchers – those who voted PN in 2008 and then voted Labour in 2013 – have returned to the PN and the same percentage also support Labour. In 2008, both parties almost drew level, with the PN winning by 143,000 to Labour’s 141,000 votes. In 2013, Labour took 167,000 votes and the PN fell to 132,000. The surveys are also suggesting that switchers are finally making up their mind, with only 6% intent on not voting but 21% are undecided. 

It is this important segment that could determine the outcome of the general election and it is because of this that they are precisely being targeted by both parties.

PN leader Simon Busuttil has managed to regain lost ground through sheer perseverance and stamina reaching figures no one would have imagined he would have targeted. He lacks the Muscat appeal, which seems to guarantee the constant trust levels the prime minister enjoys, but he has the clean card arguments to make up for that.

Joseph Muscat is the perennial communicator, whose charisma and ability to show the nation that his administration has delivered on an economy that today has created more private sector jobs than ever and enjoys a budgetary surplus and a clean bill of health from so many rating agencies.

But when it comes to governance, in spite of worthwhile measures on whistleblowers, party financing and removal of criminal prescription for politicians, Muscat takes a visible and serious knock. His show on the Panama Papers undermined his administration, and his stubborn defence of his minister and chief of staff in the face of what was an act of clear wrongdoing, dented the narrative and success he promised in 2013. This newspaper has been clear on where it stands on the political future of both men implicated in the Panama Papers.

Simon Busuttil still suffers from the drawback of the memory of the previous PN administrations, which is perhaps why the polls are still showing a small flow of PN voters joining the PL ranks. The addition of the Democratic Party candidates on the PN ballot, with former Labour MP Marlene Farrugia (and maybe the former Labour Whip Godfrey Farrugia planning to take a stand?) will be essential to his anti-corruption drive. One has yet to see the effect of the fledgling PD on the final vote.

As things stand today, the polls remain within the margin of error – which means anything can yet happen – even though Muscat’s trust rating remains constant with a 5-point gap that is not insignificant. His battle is not just charming the electorate, but fighting the allegations that gave rise to a magisterial inquiry he himself called for. Taking the nation into a snap election at this juncture has also stoked up a toxic intensity that is unusual (or maybe not…) in Maltese political campaigns.

Expect the next weeks to be tense, intense and heated. The parties will ponder whether to unleash pure hell through a negative campaign, or whether there are limits to dirty tricks. Surely the people want an intelligent and civil debate. The press has a role to ensure a healthy discussion on issues and to fact-check politicians’ claims, and also clear up so many misconceptions that are leaving voters confused.

But an election carried out under the dark cloud of allegations and denials means tribal loyalties will kick in and diehards will dig their heels in. It will be a hard choice for the rest of the voting population.