MaltaToday Survey: Are Nationalists facing another haemorrhage?

Grech’s latest problem: a 26-point drop in trust among PN voters reflected in a 20 point increase in PN voters who trust neither leader, and a 4 point increase in PN voters who trust Abela

Significantly, the survey suggests that lack of trust in Bernard Grech among PN voters is higher than that among his party councillors
Significantly, the survey suggests that lack of trust in Bernard Grech among PN voters is higher than that among his party councillors

The latest MaltaToday survey shows that the PN’s post-electoral blues have been amplified by the emergence of a new category of recent PN voters who lost their trust in PN leader Bernard Grech after the latest electoral drubbing.

The disenchantment of PN voters could be temporary, reflecting demoralisation in the party’s grassroots in the face of a third consecutive electoral drubbing and revulsion at internal squabbling within the party. By dedicating the next, ‘quiet’ months of the summer to rebuild the party, Grech may well be in a better position in time for his next appointment with the European elections in 2024.

But significantly, the survey suggests that lack of trust in Grech among PN voters is higher than that among his party councillors. For while 81% of councillors voted to confirm Grech as leader, only 65% of PN voters trust Grech. One major problem could be that as the face of defeat, Grech will find it hard to project himself as the man to lead the recovery.

The survey shows distrust increasing in political leaders, increasing in the Gozo and western regions, which also registered a sharp drop in trust in Grech.

In the strategic Gozo region, which used to elect a PN majority up until 2013 but which Labour won in the past two elections, a 20-point drop in Grech’s trust rating is reflected in a 20-point increase in voters who say they trust neither leader.

But while the drop in trust in Grech in Gozo is reflected in an increase of voters who trust neither leader, in the western region, this is reflected in increased trust in Abela.

Abela’s popularity, Grech’s dilemma

Despite the rising cost of living that is eating into low incomes, Abela is still in honeymoon mode, securing an eight-point boost in trust over his pre-election level.

Abela’s surge in the polls could also reflect a tendency for voters tend to rally behind the party in government, in a context where the Labour government has so far managed to shelter the population from the hike in energy prices. In fact Labour’s rejection of austerity may still be the main reason contributing to its electoral strength. The question is how far can this approach be sustained in the increasingly unstable international situation.

Abela’s popularity reflects the feelgood factor at a time when the country is enjoying the start of a pandemic-free summer. Electoral fatigue and the decreased political temperature is working in Abela’s favour. This raises a risk of complacency as more people withdraw to the private sphere losing interest in politics in general, especially in a context where disposable foreigners are the ones who are most exposed to risk and precarious conditions.

This in itself creates a dilemma for the opposition: should it raise the temperature again at the risk of alienating people who have had enough of divisive politics?

Would it risk losing more voters to the ‘abstentionist’ party if it transforms itself into a Labour-lite party?

Striking the right balance between principled outrage at some of Labour’s antics while still sounding constructive and conciliatory may be the greatest challenge for the PN to capitalise on its renewed and younger front bench.

And despite persistent problems related to the rule of law, it is amply clear by now that these problems do not have any impact on polls, except perhaps to increase the number of disillusioned voters.

Significantly, nearly 4% of PN voters in the last general election now trust Abela more than Grech, while 26% trust neither of the two leaders. Before the election, only 0.4% of respondents who intended voting PN preferred Abela and only 6% had no trust in either leader.

The two oppositions

The survey suggests that while 51% trust Abela, ‘opposition’ in the country is now split between PN voters and those who are losing trust in the entire political system.

This raises the question on whether the PN can ever build a coalition which can attract not just floaters who over the years have shifted to Labour but a consistent segment of the electorate who are disenchanted by both parties.

In fact, the survey confirms high levels of distrust in political leaders among the tertiary educated (32%) and under-50s (28-29%), which predates the general election.

This distrust was already reflected in a higher abstention rate in the general election itself and the latest survey suggests that despite the significant increase in Abela’s trust rating, respondents who trust neither of the two leaders has actually increased by 2 points mainly thanks to the increase in disenchantment among PN voters.

The survey also suggests that not voting remains the preferred option of those who are disenchanted with the political system.

In short, people who lost trust in the political system are far more likely to vote with their feet than experiment with the third parties which are currently on offer. This reflects what happened in the last general election which saw nearly 60,000 abstaining or invalidating their vote and only 9,308 voting for third parties.

The latest survey suggests similar trends with 22% saying that they are either undecided or that they will not vote in a forthcoming election.

Still the survey also shows a boost in the third-party vote with AD registering one of their best scores ever at nearly 3%. AD’s vote increases to 5% among the tertiary and post-secondary educated. But whether this result is a fluke or not, depends on whether this is repeated in future surveys.