Gozo, the final frontier

It may yet be too close to call in Gozo, and much may hinge on the 13th district count

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It is by no means coincidental that the PN and PL have both chosen to conclude their electoral campaigns with mass meetings in Gozo.

Historically, the 13th district has often proved of pivotal strategic electoral importance. With the notable exception of 1987, Labour always ended up winning the general elections when it secured more than 45% of the Gozitan vote, which has now grown to some 30,000. Conversely, this means that the PN usually needs to win the same district by a higher margin (55%+) to be confident of victory on a national level. 

It is therefore small wonder that both parties would also invest much more energy on the 13th district than the rest put together. The Nationalist Party has come up with a specific manifesto for the sister island which includes a promise to waive all property stamp duty for first-time buyers in Gozo and a €10,000 grant to young families who buy a house in Gozo. Labour’s emphasis may be less overt, but its manifesto likewise offers tax incentives for companies relocating to the sister island.

Given the nature of this election, this extra focus on Gozo may appear striking. The island does, after all, have its own idiosyncrasies and unique circumstances which set it apart from the rest of the country. It may seem anomalous, that the outcome of a national election may come to hinge on the unique concerns of one region of that country.

Unfortunately, however, some of these specific concerns are indeed very pressing; and, in the eyes of Gozitan voters, may legitimately be seen to override other, more generic concerns.

Respondents to a MaltaToday survey last January were asked to mention the problems which affect them directly on a personal level, and which deserve to be prioritised by the government. The lack of a bridge or tunnel linking Malta with Gozo was the most pressing issue, followed by roads and jobs.

While the order of priority varies slightly, these issues – especially jobs and other opportunities, such as study – are consistent in every Gozo-related survey. Traditionally, they have also proved almost impossible to address.

That the job situation in Gozo remains bleak, despite unprecedented employment in Malta, attests to the endemic problem in this regard. No number of electoral promises has succeeded in significantly improving that situation in the past.

Meanwhile, the lack of permanent connectivity poses logistical problems to Gozitans – especially those who work or study in Malta – that no Maltese voter would ever consider as electoral issues.

Significantly, respondents were also asked which party is considered best positioned to address these problems. They were more likely to think the PL can solve problems related to jobs and connectivity; but less likely to solve the roads problem.

From the outset, this suggests that the PN may struggle to recover the seat-majority it lost in 2013 (though it has consistently retained a vote majority in Gozo in all elections). But there are indications that these statistics may have changed since last January. 

While Labour may benefit from its power of incumbency, and Giovanna Debono’s fall from grace in view of a court case instituted against her husband in the works for votes scandal, the PN may benefit from disappointment at the lack of visible projects in Gozo, the privatisation of the island’s hospital, and the perceived rift between Labour strongman Anton Refalo and other Labour candidates.

It may yet be too close to call in Gozo, and much may hinge on the 13th district count. From this perspective, there is room to argue that more devolution – as promised by both parties – may indeed be a step in the right direction.