Stalemate: Muscat keeps 7-point lead, Labour ahead by one point

4% would vote for a third party

Joseph Muscat still leads Simon Busuttil by 7 points
Joseph Muscat still leads Simon Busuttil by 7 points

The text of the survey in the print edition referring to this month’s survey was incorrect as it referred to the survey carried out in April. The following is the correct text.

MaltaToday’s survey for May – conducted three weeks after Muscat decided to retain Konrad Mizzi in his cabinet – shows Prime Minister Joseph Muscat still leading Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil by seven points (the same lead as last month) when respondents were asked which leader they trust most.

The survey also shows the PN edging closer to Labour, which is leading by just one point (down from two points last month). That advantage falls within the survey’s margin of error of +/-4 points.

In an indication of political fatigue after weeks of intense political debate on Panamagate, the survey shows both leaders losing three points in their trust rating.  The decline in trust in both leaders was reflected in an increase of those who are undecided (+4 points) and those who trust neither of the two (+2 points). 

The survey also shows Labour losing four points and the PN losing three over last month. These losses are corresponded by an increase in support for third parties, with AD surpassing the two-point mark for the first time since 2013 and Marlene Farrugia’s embryonic new party (which has not yet been officially launched) registering in the survey for the first time ever with 1.5%. 

Significantly, the total share of third parties has risen from 2.4% last month to 4.1% as the gap between the two parties has been narrowed to just one point. This is the highest percentage registered by third parties since the 2014 MEP elections. The survey also confirms growing disenchantment among switchers, the majority of whom are saying that they won’t vote, the disillusion of a tenth of Labour voters who are also intent on not voting, and a small but significant shift of traditional Labour voters to the PN.

From Labour to PN: The new switchers?

The survey shows that more voters are shifting from Labour to the PN than vice-versa, with both Busuttil and the PN making significant inroads among traditional PL voters (those who voted Labour in 2008), 4% of whom would vote PN and 5% of whom trust Busuttil more than Muscat. 

While 1% of PN voters in 2013 would vote Labour now, 4% of PL in 2013 voters now opt for the PN. Significantly, 5% of Labour voters in 2008 will vote PN.

In this sense the survey signals the emergence of a new category of switchers who voted for Alfred Sant’s Labour in 2008 and reject Muscat’s party now. This shift may explain why the PN leader has been making a concerted effort to appeal to these voters both by addressing events in clubs in Labour-leaning localities like Cospicua and by using distinctly centre left discourse. Signs of this shift were already evident in the local council elections of 2015, which showed the PN making inroads in several southern localities.

The survey confirms that the PN has blocked the haemorrhage of votes, which started in 2008 after the election of Muscat as PL leader. In fact while surveys before 2014 consistently showed more than a tenth of PN voters in 2008 defecting to Labour, only 5% of PN voters in 2008 would vote PL now. Significantly, surveys held in the first year after Labour’s election to power still showed the PN losing further ground to the PL. This meant that the PL’s losses were offset by gains from the PN. This is no longer the case. Panamagate seems to have definitively alienated PN-leaning voters from Labour.

Muscat has more room to grow

Although the survey shows the parties tied neck-to-neck, Muscat remains more trusted than Busuttil. This suggests that Labour has greater room to grow among the larger percentage of respondents who trust Muscat more than Busuttil, than the PN does among those who trust Busuttil more than Muscat. This gives a pivotal role in any election to past Labour voters who trust Muscat but who are still undecided on who to vote for or who intend to abstain in a forthcoming election. This strategic sector amounts to 9.5% of the electorate. The segment which trusts Busuttil most but is still undecided or intent on not voting, amounts to 3%.

This is why Muscat may be banking on turning the next election into a presidential contest against Busuttil. For although he was seriously damaged by Panamagate and other scandals which saw a 15 point trust lead in January 2015 halved, Muscat surprisingly still enjoys a substantial lead despite the scale of the Panamagate scandal which saw his closest aides opening companies in secretive locations.

But such a strategy does not take into account voters who would still vote PN despite trusting Muscat more than Busuttil. While none of the voters intent on voting PL trust Busuttil more than Muscat, 2% of current PN voters trust Muscat more than Busuttil.  This suggests that some voters may well prefer Muscat to Busuttil but would still choose the PN at the next election. And while 4% of PN voters in 2013 prefer Muscat to Busuttil, only 1% would vote PL.

After peaking in last month’s survey both leaders have registered a decrease in support among voters of their respective parties. Muscat’s trust rating decreased from 83% to 78% among PL voters while Busuttil’s trust rating went down from 89% to 84% among PN voters. PL voters are more likely not to trust any of the two leaders. These include 8% of PL voters in 2008.

While 8% of PN voters trust neither of the two leaders, the percentage rises to 15% among PL voters. Distrust in the two leaders peaks among switchers, 63% of whom trust neither leader. But the survey also shows that 8% of PL voters in 2008 distrust both leaders.

In a clear indication that the PN leader is making inroads among traditional Labour voters, 5% of PL voters in 2008 now trust Busuttil more than Muscat. But while Busuttil is striking a chord with a segment of Labour voters, he is not making sufficient gains among switchers. Among this category Muscat remains more trusted than Busuttil (even if more switchers are intent on voting for the PN than Labour). Only 13% trust Busuttil more than Muscat compared to 17% who trust Muscat more than Busuttil. This suggests that Busuttil still has not found a formula to convince switchers to return home. 

Switchers rejecting both parties

Significantly, the survey shows 54% of switchers intending to abstain in the next election and only 8% intending to vote for the PL. The survey shows the PL registering the lowest level of support among switchers since 2013.   

Muscat is now trusted by just 17% of switchers, down from 33.3% of switchers in March soon after the first Panama revelations came out, compared to 67% in July 2013, just months after the general election. On the other hand the percentage of switchers who trust neither leader has shot up from 41.2% in March to a staggering 63% now.

But despite disenchantment with the party in government only 12% have shifted back to the PN. This may also explain Labour’s strategy, which deflects any criticism on Panamagate by lashing out at the opposition, thus contributing to disenchantment with the system, which blocks any recovery of the PN among switchers. Neither are switchers drifting to third parties in any substantial number. If switchers end up staying at home, this will result in Labour losses but would not contribute to PN gains.

In fact the latest survey shows only 12% intent on voting PN, down from 32% in March. While these statistics must be read with caution due to the small sample of switchers available in the survey, the indication is that this category remains difficult territory for the PN. 

Gains for third parties

The survey registers small gains for AD (up to 2.2% from 1.2%) and the emergence of Marlene Farrugia’s embryonic new party mentioned by nearly 2% of voters. 0.4% opted for far right formations.

A breakdown of Farrugia’s vote base by past voting intentions suggests that the new party is getting most of its support from past PN voters. While 57% voted PN in 2013, 14% voted AD and the rest did not vote. On the other hand only 10% of AD’s current voters had voted PN in 2013, 50% had voted AD and 20% had voted Labour. Due to the minuscule samples involved such figures must be read with caution.

The indication given by this survey is that Farrugia’s party seems to be penalizing the PN more than the PL, by tapping into its vote base. Still the vast majority of Farrugia’s voters (71%) declare having no trust in either leader, which suggests that it is not automatic that they would PN in the absence of Farrugia’s party. The survey also suggests that AD has managed to keep most of its past voters despite growing competition in the third party sector. While the survey suggests a small increase for third parties, these parties are still dwarfed by the non-voters category, which is 11% strong.

The survey was held between Monday 23 and Thursday 26 May. The results were weighed to reflect the age and gender balance of the population. 821 respondents were contacted. 500 respondents accepted to participate in the survey. The survey has a margin of error of +/-4.3 points.