[ANALYSIS] Breaking free? Only 45% of youths set to vote PN and PL

39% of 16-35s trust neither party, 25% will not vote, and only 45% are committed to the PN or PL – and all this despite an intensification of campaigning during the last month. Is this a sign of a higher abstention in next year’s election, or will the abstention rate dissipate as the election drums get louder in a real campaign?

While a large segment of young people are disenchanted by both major parties, the latest bout of scepticism has had a sharper impact on the PN
While a large segment of young people are disenchanted by both major parties, the latest bout of scepticism has had a sharper impact on the PN

In a month marked by intense speculation on an imminent election and rising political temperature, scepticism among 16-35s reached an annual peak, with the percentage of young voters committed to vote PN or PL falling from an annual high of 67% in July, to just 45% now; and the percentage who trust either Bernard Grech or Robert Abela falling from 74% in July to 56% now.

The new divide

The survey suggests that a new demographic divide is setting in, one between apathetic or disenchanted young voters, whose partisan loyalties are waning; and the stronger partisan bonds among older voters, particularly among those aged over 50.

In fact, while only 45% of under-35s intend to vote for either PN or PL, the percentage of PL-PN voters rises to 69% among those aged 36-59, and to 85% among those aged 51-65, and 92% for those over-65. Moreover, the percentage of thoseunder-35s who would abstain is six times higher than that among those aged over 50.

But even more significant is the trend which has seen political scepticism among under-35s increase as the election got closer, in an indication that younger voters have recoiled from political tribalism as the political parties started to beat the drums louder. This suggests either those younger voters are the last to be seized by the electoral fever, which has already captivated older voters, or that younger voters are increasingly recoiling at attempts to mobilise them.

In fact between July and now, the percentage of those who do not trust either Grech or Abela has increased from 25% in July to a staggering 39% now.

So far this disenchantment with the political system among the young has not translated into any significant increase in support for third parties.

In fact, despite the increase in political scepticism among this cohort, only 2% of young voters will be voting ADPD. Support for ADPD among older voters is lower and practically inexistent among over 50-year-olds. Still, the survey suggests that third parties may still find a fertile ground among younger voters in a campaign where they gain more visibility. The fact that younger voters are also more sensitive about environmental issues should in theory bolster support for the greens in this category, as is the case in other EU member states like Germany, where green parties are most popular in younger cohorts.

But these results suggest that ADPD is still struggling to capture the imagination of young people and in such a context not voting may become a stronger statement than voting for a third party with limited chances of making a breakthrough.

PN more penalised by abstention

MaltaToday surveys also suggest that the PN is more penalised than Labour by waning partisan loyalties among younger voters. In fact, a comparison between the latest survey and the one in July shows that a 10-point increase in non-voters has seen support for the PN decrease by 19 points in contrast to a smaller three-point dip for Labour. And a 15-point increase in the number of younger voters who trust neither political leader has translated in a 12-point dip for Grech and a six-point decrease for Abela.

This suggests that while a large segment of young people are disenchanted by both major parties, the latest bout of scepticism has had a sharper impact on the PN, in what could be another indication that partisan loyalties are weaker among PN-leaning voters.

And while the PL scores a low 32% among younger voters, the PN trails at just 13%. Even more worrying for the PN is that Labour has more room to grow because in this cohort while Abela is 8 points more popular than his party, Grech is only two points more popular.

Moreover, the abstention figures among younger voters mirror those of tertiary-educated voters, a category in which 36% trust neither Abela or Grech and 20% will not vote. But while Labour and Abela lead among younger voters, tertiary-educated voters still lean towards the PN. This could be an indication that abstention is highest among younger tertiary-educated voters hailing from PN-leaning families. It also suggests that the party’s budget proposals targeting younger voters-like the promised €500 grant in travel vouchers for young people have not hit home.

One problem could be that with little chance of getting elected, the PN finds it hard to convince voters that its proposals are even realizable. The low scores by the party among the young may also explain Grech’s attempt to ditch his party’s social conservatism but with Labour stands at an advantage, being the party which can deliver reforms like the one liberalizing the recreational use of cannabis.

A non-voters’ party?

The survey results beg the question: are polls indicating an increase in abstention in the next general election? The polls suggest that over-35s are already closing ranks behind their respective parties. In fact, over the past month while the abstention rate has increased among under-35s, it has remained unchanged among those aged 36-50, and decreased among the over-50s.

In this way, the increase in non-voters among the young has been offset by a decrease in non-voters among older voters. In fact, overall the percentage of those intending not to vote has remained stable at around 12% in both the October and November surveys. What may suggest an increase in abstention in the next election is that younger voters have not re-trenched themselves despite rising political heat from an imminent election.

This may defy pre-established trends, which see an increase in non-voters in mid-term years and a retrenchment during the electoral campaign. For example, before 2017 polls had registered a considerable decrease in abstention among PL leaning voters as soon as an election was called. It may also be the case that premature speculation on an imminent election in November may have further alienated younger voters, who may resent partisan games.

It is also difficult to interpret the message sent by those who intend not voting at this particular moment in time. While some of these voters may be sending a message of distrust in the political system, others could be apathetic or simply turned off from politics in general. While the former may be more likely to stay at home on election day, the latter may still return to the fold captivated by the electoral fever gripping the rest of the country.

The problem for both parties would be if their antics and promises during the electoral campaign start recoiling rather than attracting voters. In short, the risk for both parties, but particularly for the PN which needs to bridge the gap, is that abstention could become a fad, especially if younger voters find role models reinforcing this trend.

Yet the greatest obstacle for this from happening is that not voting also means giving up the little power one has; that of determining which party governs the country, which representatives are elected to parliament and even more crucial in the next election by what margin Labour will be winning the general election. The latter consideration may well be a compelling reason for middle-of-the-road young voters to put a peg on their nose and vote PN, even if a larger number may well prefer to ride on the crest of Labour’s success in a re-edition of the bandwagon effect seen in 2013 and 2017.

The major problem for both parties is in fact the absence of compelling issues as EU membership was in 2003 and change in government was in 2013.

And unlike a vote for a third party which stands for something, the reasons for abstaining are hard to decipher and interpret and may well end up relegated to a statistical curiosity in the post-electoral discussion. In fact, small but incremental increases in abstention over the past years from 97% in 2003 to 92% in 2017, have been largely ignored.

In short, for abstention to be understood as a political message, it also needs to be articulated as a protest vote by social movement of sorts.

Yet this begs the question: if people are really fed up with the bipartisan system, why don’t they vote for a third party or create one if those on offer fail to inspire?