Small parties not making inroads

One must therefore question why the smaller parties are struggling to make inroads. One cannot ignore the structural imbalance against third parties in a country where the major parties are also owners of TV stations

European and local council elections are often regarded as ‘safe’ occasions to vote outside the usual parameters of party allegiance: if nothing else, because the electorate will not be conditioned by the effect that voting for a third party may have on the two parties’ ability to get into power..

Moreover these elections are ideal for cross-party voting. This is especially true of European elections, in which Malta and Gozo are considered one single district: making it possible (unlike general elections) to give a vote for a candidate who would normally not be contesting in one’s own district. The electorate therefore has the pick of the entire country, and can even vote for a ‘dream team’of the best candidates from all sides.

This much was evidenced by the first MEP elections held in 2004, where Arnold Cassola came close to get elected with 22,000 voters.  Small parties like AD have also consistently registered much better results in local elections than on a national level, becoming a fixture in localities like Attard and Sliema.

Nonetheless, our latest survey seems to indicate that third parties have failed to gain traction.  This reflects the same trend as in the 2009 and 2014 elections in which third party candidates failed to make any significant inroads.

Yet 2019 should have represented an even greater opportunity for third parties than the others. The infighting taking place within the Nationalist Party has created a groundswell of discontent, which may account for the PN’s slow rate of progress as the campaign unfolds.

But while the PN appears to be failing to attract many disgruntled voters to the fold… the ones who keep away  do not seem to be register a preference for either AD or PD.

This should be particularly worrying for PD, as its positive result in the 2017 election – where it elected two MPs – was in part due to a coalition with the Nationalist Party. This European election, represents the pPD’s first electoral effort, alone and unaided. The survey does not paint a very encouraging picture.     

On its part, Labour, too, seems to be struggling to contain a wave of discontent among the grassroots. Muscat’s lurch to the right may have disorientated oldschool Labourites; while there are open mutterings of disgruntlement at his policy to ‘import foreigners’.

One must therefore question why the smaller parties are struggling to make inroads. One cannot ignore the structural imbalance against third parties in a country where the major parties are also owners of TV stations. But this, alone, cannot account for the small parties failure to excite or entice the electorare.

One reason for this is the third party vote is fragmented more than ever. AD, PD and independent candidate Arnold Cassola are competing for the environmentalist and middle of the road vote.   While just a few months ago AD and PD had announced that they were discussing possible collaboration between the two parties, the electorate is now faced with three choices.

Bizarrely, this election will even see three former and present AD leaders contesting in three different lists; Cassola as an independent, Cacopardo as an AD candidate and Michael Briguglio with the PN.

Even within the farright, holocaust denier Norman Lowell is competing with the anti-immigrant but more traditional Moviment Patrijotti Maltin and independent candidate Stephen Florian.  The fact that Lowell has eclipsed the other rightwing candidates, despite his highly contentious views on the holocaust and eugenics, suggests that Malta has a growing cohort of people with dangerous and extreme viewpoints.  All the same, despite making inroads in the polls -which have yet to be confirmed- the far right vote in Malta remains a far cry from that on the continent.

Moreover, small parties are not making any impact among Labour voters, a cohort which includes most floating voters who migrated from the PN in the past decade.  Judging by the flows in past election, it should be the PL not the PN who should be most vulnerable to shifts to third parties.  But this is clearly not the case.

This suggests either that the floating voters which migrated to Labour are still satisfied by Muscat’s government; or that third parties are not making a pitch for pale red Labour voters who may have concerns on environmental and social issues, but still do not view third parties as viable options.

The prospects look a lot brighter for third parties and independents in local elections due on the same day:  voters may well see third party candidates, especially those with strong environmental credentials, as an investment in their quality of life. AD is showing the first signs of a generational renewal which may augur well for its future; while PD has managed to field an impressive number of candidates for the first time at local level.  .

But while this is encouraging, the bigger picture that Malta is still far from the generational political change that would result in a more multi-representational system. Clearly, smaller parties have to work a lot more to convince the Maltese electorate of the benefits of such a move; and they are only making life harder for themselves by fragmenting their own support-base.

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