Massive trust drop among ‘switchers’ feeds debate over smashing Maltese duopoly

Panamagate failed to dent the Prime Minister’s solid trust rating but hurt his standing with the floating vote, of whom over 40% now claim they trust neither of the two main leaders

While Joseph Muscat now trusted by 23.4% of switchers – which could be a major part of the 36,000 vote majority he obtained in 2013 – the majority of switchers in the latest survey (41.2%) trust neither leader.(Photo: Ray Attard)
While Joseph Muscat now trusted by 23.4% of switchers – which could be a major part of the 36,000 vote majority he obtained in 2013 – the majority of switchers in the latest survey (41.2%) trust neither leader.(Photo: Ray Attard)

The latest MaltaToday survey conducted after Panamagate showed Muscat’s trust rating at an all time low among switchers – the category of voters who voted PN in 2008 and PL in 2013.  

Yet despite the sharp dip for Muscat, who is now trusted by 23.4% of switchers, compared to 67% in July 2013, just months after the general election, the majority of switchers in the latest survey (41.2%) trust neither leader.

An analysis of MaltaToday surveys shows that the mood of this category only changed drastically after June 2015, following the revelations on land expropriations benefitting Marco Gaffarena.

MaltaToday surveys show support for the PN among switchers increasing by just 2 points (9% to 11%) between March 2014 and March 2015. This suggests an initial disappointment with the new Labour government among a tenth of switchers who remained constant during the first two years.

Similarly, Muscat saw his trust rating among switchers dropping from 67% in July 2013 to 57% in December 2013. This remained relatively constant in the next months, with surveys showing the Prime Minister retaining the same trust rating as recently as a year ago, in March 2015. 

Trust in Muscat among switchers fell from 56% to 46% in June 2015 while trust in Busuttil rose from 9% to 29%.   

With regard to voting intentions support for the PN also increased from 12% in March to 33% in June. Muscat did recover some support among switchers, with his trust rating going up again to 50% in October, after the summer lull.   

The PN also lost two points among this category in the same period. Muscat again lost trust following the publication of the Auditor General report on the Gaffarena case, which led to the resignation of parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon, with his trust rating among switchers falling to 39% in February 2016. Panamagate resulted in another blow for Muscat in the switcher category, his trust rating plummeting to just 23%.

But while Muscat has seen a considerable dip in his trust rating, Simon Busuttil has only registered moderate gains. Busuttil’s trust among switchers peaked at 29% after the Gaffarena revelations but fell again to 25% in January. Neither did Busuttil’s trust rating receive any boost after Panamagate, with the latest survey registering a 27% trust rating for the PN leader in this category.  

Regarding voting intentions the latest survey shows the PN getting nearly a third of the switchers’s vote, one point less than in June. This suggests that while the Gaffarena case resulted in a shift towards the PN among switchers, Panamagate has resulted in a loss of trust in Muscat but no further vote gains for the opposition. The survey also shows that switchers are more likely to vote PN in a forthcoming election than put their trust in Busuttil. For while only 27% of switchers trust Busuttil, 32% would vote PN. 

Working on the assumption that switchers constituted the vast majority of Labour’s 36,000 strong majority in 2013 (since the 2008 election was won by the PN by just 1,500) in numerical terms, the latest MaltaToday survey would mean that 11,000-12,000 switchers have migrated back to the PN while the PL retains 7,000-8,000.  

Still the majority of switchers (17,000-18,000) are either undecided or would not vote. This calculation does not account for new voters in 2013, who could constitute a proportion of Labour’s 36,000 strong majority. 

In the absence of significant gains among new voters and traditional Labour voters, to win the election the PN needs to win back 18,000 switchers. And even that could turn out to be not enough if the PL wins the bulk of new voters. 

Are ‘floaters’ seeking a new party to smash the duopoly?

Paul Vincenti, whose anti-abortion lobby has in the past campaigned for a constitutional entrenchment of the crime of abortion, may be on the look-out for a new political outlet.

At least that’s as far as can be gleaned from a closed Facebook group he set up to seek debate on a new Christian faith-based conservation political group. Such is the feeling in the country as Panamagate ushered in a new wave of disillusionment with the political class: the third party bug is in the air.

“In a the future we will organize a seminar on ‘The Christian Vote in Malta’,” Vincenti said on Facebook. “It will be open to all those who feel it is time to become a respected voice in Maltese politics again.”

And in an earlier post: “The next politician to claim they are in favour of everything and everyone, will get my boot thrown at them. We need politicians with clear moral convictions based upon conscience and not on opinions. The new generation of leaders need to be willing to stand up and take the flack for being truthful and upright in their convictions.”

Clearly, it is something that others, even though not faith-inclined, are looking for. Green party chairman Arnold Cassola feels the next election is a unique chance for Alternattiva Demokratika to make inroads with the disillusioned electorate. “30% of the public don’t trust either Joseph Muscat or Simon Busuttil,” Cassola said, citing MaltaToday’s survey.

“The public aspiration for a third political party is also on the rise, providing very fertile ground for AD [which] must make its presence felt on the ground now more than ever, and keep its eyes and ears open to see what the public want.”

However, only 1.3% of the electorate intend to vote for AD, up from 0.8% in February.

Cassola blames the electoral system and lack of media coverage for his party. “The electoral system favours a two-party system, and AD are often not given space on the media to air its views as the two large parties do.”

But Cassola adds that AD is also coalition-minded, saying the party would join forces with like-minded groups: pro-EU, good governance, pro-environment and political consistency, and against racism and xenophobia. “The people are now fed up with how the PN and PL both desire absolute power, with how they seize the entire country’s assets – from BOV to the water services – whenever they get elected.”

Independent MP Marlene Farrugia also appealed to the Labour Party to return to the “political force” it was before the 2013 election. 

“The Labour movement was essentially a new party, a fresh political force that was supposed to represent everybody at all times. Malta Taghna Lkoll. It was a new party that promised a new and clean style of governance that had sprung up when the people needed it most. If this political force manages to renew itself, then everyone will realize what the party’s true intentions are,” she said.

Farrugia, who resigned from the PL in November in protest at the proposed MEPA demerger, argued that Labour’s electoral manifesto had incorporated a vast chunk of green party Alternattiva Demokratika’s political ideology. 

“The people already voiced their support for AD’s ideology, but didn’t support AD itself because the Constitution renders it very difficult for smaller parties to get elected.”

TV presenter Salvu Mallia lashed out at the electoral system, describing it as a “rigged dictatorship” designed so that elections would always be won by either the PL or the PN.

“Before we can even speak about the need for a third party, we must change the anti-democratic electoral system,” he said. “The system gives a voice and power to parties that already have them, whereas democracies should seek to empower those without a voice.” 

He said that every party or individual candidate must be given an equal platform, regardless of the positions they endorse. 

“Some will say stupid things while others will speak professionally, but in a democracy it is important that the public gets to hear them all before making a choice.”

He questioned why people have recently praised him for his “courage” and “guts” after he criticised the government over the Panamagate scandal. 

“All I did was voice my opinion, as was my duty. Does disagreeing with the Prime Minister or the Opposition leader mean that I have guts? This goes back to the crux of my argument; if we weren’t living in a dictatorship, then people wouldn’t be praised for having guts whenever they disagree with people in power.”