[ANALYSIS] A referendum on Joseph…

Will Malta’s 2017 election be a referendum on Muscat, or a presidential contest between two leaders? James Debono breaks it down

Joseph Muscat, a better communicator
Joseph Muscat, a better communicator

What the PL wants

The PL wants this election to be a direct presidential contest pitting Joseph Muscat’s economic achievements against the risk of disruption posed by Busuttil. Banking on Muscat’s higher trust rating and his better communications skills, Labour is hoping that coupled with a blitzkrieg of promises, it will trounce the opposition.

This is why it has chosen the slogan “the best time for our country” while dubbing the opposing camp as a “coalition of confusion”.

Subliminally the PL’s slogan invites voters to make a choice dictated by self-interest and the promise of personal enrichment. 

What the PN wants

The PN wants this election to be a referendum on Joseph Muscat, whose credibility has been undermined by the Panama scandal. That is why it has chosen the simple slogan “I choose Malta”. Underlying this slogan is that voters are being asked to choose the national interest over Muscat’s ‘clique’ in Castille, evocatively dubbed by Marlene Farrugia as the “Panama gang”. Subliminally the slogan invites voters to make a moral choice against corruption. In this way the PN seeks to unite all those who want to get rid of Muscat while giving an assurance that the PN would restore a sense of institutional normality. News that the inquiring magistrate has ordered a separate probe on the PM’s chief of staff after finding that “the necessary prerequisites” existed for an investigation has surely tightened the noose around the inner circle of government. 

The pitfalls in the PN’s strategy

One major pitfall of the PN’s strategy is that Muscat has consistently enjoyed a higher trust rating than Busuttil. In fact by inviting voters to choose Malta rather than Busuttil the PN may be inadvertently admitting its weakness.

In this much depends on whether voters are willing to trust the PN again after just four years in opposition. For by re-electing the PN, voters would be breaking with the 10-year cycle rule, which saw governments losing their majority after a decade in 1971, 1981 and 1996.

Labour will probably resurrect some skeleton from the PN’s closet to undermine Busuttil’s claim to the moral high ground, in a strategy aimed at convincing voters that both parties are equally corrupt. But at this stage any revelation by Labour may well be seen by the electorate as a desperate attempt to cover up the more immediate Panama scandal.

The pitfalls in Muscat’s strategy

Ironically both strategies hinge on Muscat’s towering personality and the success of the PN’s campaign depends on how far the electorate has lost trust in the Labour leader.

On the other hand Labour’s campaign hinges on people’s willingness to forget all about Panama and the perception of increased corruption and to celebrate economic growth. It also hinges on the belief that a future Labour government will channel the fiscal surplus into people’s pockets.

That is why Labour has used the initial days of the campaign to blitzkrieg the electorate with promises of tax cuts, holidays and road repairs. The gist of Labour’s campaign is that the economy and people’s pockets, not governance, are the most important issue.

In some way this is reminiscent of Lawrence Gonzi’s similar emphasis in the face of Franco Debono’s tirades but it underscores the risks posed by corruption to economic wellbeing. The risk of all this is that the electorate may perceive these promises as a devious ploy by Muscat to save his skin, especially in view of the timing, which sees Muscat calling an election before the conclusion of the Egrant inquiry.

PL more focused, PN more tactical

Simon Busuttil is contesting the 12th district, where the PN saw big losses in 2013
Simon Busuttil is contesting the 12th district, where the PN saw big losses in 2013

Judging from the opening days, the PN’s campaign seems less focused on a single message. While Labour is basing itself on Muscat’s record in office, the PN is still fighting on two fronts: bidding to demolish Muscat’s credibility while trying to portray a more positive policy oriented message.

While the party is trying as far as possible to keep the spotlight on the fact that the election itself was called in the wake of serious accusations against the Prime Minister and his chief of staff, it is finding it harder to sell its alternative vision. But there could be more than meets the eye in the PN’s campaign, which has targeted Gozo to focus on one category of voters, which may sway the result.

The PN has also announced a separate manifesto directed at young people, a category which presently includes a large percentage of voters who are either saying that they won’t vote or who are undecided. 

Another major difference between the campaigns is that while Labour is inclined to pit Muscat against what it perceives as an inept Busuttil, the PN’s campaign is trying to convey the impression that the “national force” is greater than Busuttil. 

The pitfall of this is that many voters are asking: will a Nationalist government led by Busuttil be more competent than Muscat in delivering economic growth and prosperity for all? Muscat’s positive achievements in childcare, low unemployment and general prosperity militate against a change of government.

But increasing concern on inequality, rising property prices, environmental issues, traffic and transparency may be creating discontent among strategic niches of voters.

Echoes of 1996?

But while Muscat is clearly a better communicator than Busuttil, this does not necessarily result in an electoral victory, especially if Muscat comes across as bullish (as he was on Monday when addressing the Labour crowd in front of Castille) and over confident.

Electoral experience shows that unpretentious Alfred Sant was still able to beat Eddie Fenech Adami’s Nationalist Party in 1996 despite being widely perceived as an uncharismatic leader. The parallels with 1996 are in fact many: a strong buoyant economy, an election called months before it was due, an aggressive slick and futuristic campaign by the party in government and a poorer opposition which pitted itself against business barons. 

The only major difference is that while the PN started from a 13,000 vote margin, this time round Muscat starts from a 35,000 vote margin, which means that the swing has to be more substantial. Moreover while the PN was serving a second term, Muscat is still serving his first term.

The magisterial incognita

The problem for both campaigns is that both may be easily derailed from any developments on the Panama front. For example any proof about the PM’s involvement in Egrant may be devastating for Labour.

Moreover, if the inquiring magistrate concludes his work before the election, this may either derail the PN’s campaign if Muscat is absolved or derail Labour’s campaign if the accusations are proved.

The start of a new investigation with regard to alleged kickbacks received by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff casts another dark shadow on the campaign. For while this investigation may not be completed before the election, if the accusations are proven, the PM’s position may be untenable even if he is re-elected to power. The publication of documents which according to blogger Caruana Galizia have been scanned and uploaded in a cloud, may also have devastating consequences for Labour.

The lure of populism

One big risk for the country is that with the stakes being so high, both parties may end up making unsustainable and populist proposals which would ultimately undermine economic well being. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna seems to have let go of his grasp on Labour’s fiscal gear as his leader keeps promising more tax cuts, while the PN has responded by a €10,000 incentive package for couples who decide to stay or return to Gozo.

While this may be addressing demographic realities of an ageing island, it also smacks of dishing out money on a strategic cohort of voters. Moreover the PN continues to undermine its environmental credentials by pushing for a tunnel connecting Malta and Gozo. Busuttil has so far not clarified whether the tunnel would only cater for public transport or for private cars, a significant choice considering the traffic impact of such a tunnel.

Choice of districts

The choice of districts which will be contested by the party leaders is also highly symbolic. By contesting Dom Mintoff’s second district the PM may be bent on galvanising the core vote while by contesting the fifth he may be underlining the strategic importance of south-western Malta, whose switchers may be a different kettle of fish than those in northern Malta who may be more concerned on quality of life issues.

These voters may be a key to Labour retaining power. Muscat’s decision to contest the fifth district may also indicate some discomfort about Marlene Farrugia’s candidature. On the other hand Busuttil is clearly targeting the 12th district, a northern district which includes St Paul’s Bay, a multicultural locality which also includes a large number of separated people who were irked by the party’s anti divorce stance in 2012. In this district the PN had experienced major losses in the last general election but the party may have started recovering by becoming more liberal and open.

The small fry in a big election

In all this Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green Party, which has always consistently campaigned for good governance and environmental issues, will find itself making a hard sell to potential voters who may perceive this election as a referendum on Muscat. This perception is further solidified by AD’s own willingness to join a coalition with the PN if the latter were willing to agree with a shared name.

Green voters, especially in PN leaning districts, may already have taken the hint and feel absolved from their duty to vote AD, especially in view of declarations by AD’s former chairperson, Michael Briguglio, supporting the ‘national force’.

AD’s last hope lies in voters who still have an axe to grind with the PN’s bad governance record before 2013 but are equally appalled by Muscat’s record in office, who may find a parking space in the green party. But in view of the seriousness of the evidence piling up against Keith Schembri and the institutional failure to follow on the FIAU report, most discerning AD voters will probably have no choice but to vote PN.

On the other hand Marlene Farrugia’s party may become an attractive option for pale blue voters or switchers already bent on turning back, who would prefer to vote for another party but fear the prospect of Muscat winning the election. In this sense the PD has resolved the wasted vote problem at the cost of being perceived as an appendage of the PN.

The question is whether the PD will get any votes from the other side or whether it will simply eat from within the PN’s pie. This may change if Godfrey Farrugia, who resigned from Labour whip and announced his decision not to stand for Labour, decides to contest with the PD.

For Godfrey Farrugia may be the missing link in the PN’s path to power, a credible role model for Labour voters still contemplating on whether to cross the Rubicon.