[ANALYSIS] 2013 vs 2017: A tale of two campaigns

After four years of governing in prose after winning an election where he campaigned in poetry, Muscat tried the blitzkrieg gamble – a short campaign meant to devastate the opposition.  Is it paying off? James Debono asks

Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Nationalist Party Simon Busuttil
Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat and Nationalist Party Simon Busuttil

There could be no fitting contrast than that between the choreographed launch of Labour’s electoral campaign at midnight on 7 January, 2013 and the announcement of the election at a mass meeting in Castille Square on May 1. 

Presenting his campaign slogan Malta Taghna Lkoll live on TV just one minute after the clock struck midnight Muscat outlined his vision: “Malta is for all of us because Malta is neither mine, nor is it of some other politician. It’s not a country that belongs to some clique. It’s the country that belongs to everybody because we are a united people, and we are determined to see our country taken away from the clique and given back to the people, irrespectively of how they vote.”

Four years later in Castille Square, Muscat called for an election while addressing a mass meeting. In his speech, a bullish Muscat was exultant, hitting triumphalist notes – “we have become the envy of Europe” – to belittling his adversary, describing his rival Simon Busuttil as a “weak character” whose “thirst for power” meant he had no problem dragging Malta’s name through the mud.

The only similarity with 2013 was that Labour seemed more prepared for the occasion than the Nationalist Party, gaining an early edge in the campaign in terms of billboards and proposals.  

But gone was the inclusive approach and emphasis on meritocracy of the 2013 campaign. Instead a more bullish Labour, which also enjoys the power of incumbency, is basing its campaign on its economic track record. Yet on this point it is the Opposition, which seems to be setting the tone of the campaign and putting the government on the defensive. This is a complete reversal of 2013 when Gonzi warned about the risk of Labour upsetting the cart, after Malta’s economy had survived the global financial crisis.

For the election campaign is being fought mainly on the corruption issue with Muscat ultimately relying on being absolved on Panama company Egrant to wash away all other accusations of impropriety.

The unity factor

Labour’s 2013 campaign was characterised by messages of inclusion
Labour’s 2013 campaign was characterised by messages of inclusion

Muscat started the 2013 campaign exploiting the divisions which led to the premature fall of the Gonzi government, which was ultimately brought down by Franco Debono in a budget vote. Through the campaign Muscat projected the image of an inclusive party, which was open to switchers from the other side. This time round it is the PN which is exploiting divisions from the other side.

While the alliance with Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party did not come as a surprise, Godfrey Farrugia’s decision to contest with the PD under the PN’s umbrella gave a new impetus to the PN’s campaign. For the soft-spoken and conciliatory Farrugia may well provide a role model for switchers. Labour’s counter-move, that of fielding Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in the same district as Farrugia, did not have the same effect simply because Pullicino Orlando formed part of the 2013 wave of switchers who were rewarded by the PL in government.  

One contrast exploited by Muscat in 2013 was the PN’s divisive pitch in its bid to rally its core voters. 

This pitch was cemented by Simon Busuttil’s gaffe (in his role as Gonzi’s deputy leader) in a debate about Deborah Schembri having a “Nationalist face”. While Muscat is still exploiting this tactic with Busuttil, the PN leader is also attempting an inclusive pitch, appealing directly to Labourites. Because indeed Busuttil now needs more Labour faces to win the campaign. 

Oil scandal vs Panama

Corruption dominated this year’s University debate
Corruption dominated this year’s University debate

While Panamagate preceded the coming election by a year, the oil scandal erupted during the early stage of the 2013 electoral campaign, when MaltaToday revealed it.  Judging by polls conducted before the election, the oil scandal was not itself a game-changer but served to reinforce the views of switchers who had already decided to vote for the PL.

The oil scandal itself did cast a shadow on former PN ministers Austin Gatt and Tonio Fenech on their relationship with the protagonists of the case. The granting of a presidential pardon to oil trader George Farrugia was also made during the campaign. But unlike the case with  Panamagate which exposed an institutional paralysis with the authorities failing to investigate during the past year, a police investigation was immediately ordered after the oil scandal was revealed.

The 2017 election itself was called in the wake of the latest allegations of kickbacks to Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and the more sensational allegation by Daphne Caruana Galizia, backed by the testimony of a whistleblower, that offshore company Egrant belongs to Michelle Muscat. Judging by polls before the election, Panamagate had already eroded Labour’s 2013 lead but not enough to deprive the party of a comfortable majority.  

The first post-electoral polls suggest that this is still the case even if these allegations have reinforced the views of voters shifting back to the PN. But it may also be the case that a category of voters is reserving judgement to the last moment.

The seriousness of the Egrant allegation has so far obscured the less sensational but equally serious and more detailed evidence presented by Simon Busuttil to the inquiring magistrate on Schembri.  

The Prime Minister himself has cast a dark shadow on his own party by going to the polls immediately instead of waiting for the results of inquiries on both cases, raising the question of whether the polls are being used as a way to short-circuit a judicial process. But Egrant has also given him the opportunity to lash out at Busuttil for endorsing the claims made against his wife in the crucial days between Daphne Caruana Galizia’s allegations and Busuttil’s exposé of suspicious payments involving Schembri’s bank account in Pilatus Bank and a secret company.

The Egrant allegation has also provided a plausible answer to the big unanswered question of last year: why did Muscat retain Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi in the first place? For Busuttil, it also represents a quandary: if Muscat’s involvement in Egrant is not proved, his political judgement would also be questioned.

Both the oil scandal and Panamagate have put the incumbents on the defensive but in this election the stakes are even higher.  

In normal circumstances, payments involving a nebulous network of secret companies involving a PM’s chief of staff would have been enough to trip the scales. But one should remember that in 2008, allegations on JPO which turned out to be true, only served to get the errant MP elected on two districts. Still in that case the allegations were only proven by Sant in the last televised debate with Gonzi.

In this case the electorate has been aware of Schembri’s and Mizzi’s Panama companies for more than a year.

Auction of proposals

The two parties’ logos of this year’s elections are strikingly similar
The two parties’ logos of this year’s elections are strikingly similar

In contrast to foreign elections where these are fought on a few key policy pledges and directions, Maltese elections are seeing both major parties appealing to a plethora of interest groups and strategic categories of voters.

The 2013 election saw both main parties competing in an auction of proposals, including a surreal occasion where the PL pre-empted a promise by the PN to distribute tablets to school children.  

The 2017 election also saw the parties outbidding each other on tax cuts. And while Muscat tried to belittle Busuttil’s proposal to extend free childcare to everyone, Labour later rethought its opposition, proposing childcare for parents who study full time and families who have a terminally-ill member. For the first time a major political party has also taken a commitment not to develop a site identified for development by successive administrations. The Nationalist Party has also taken a firm commitment not to develop the White Rocks site.

Role of interest groups

This billboard from 2013 epitomised the tribalism in the PN’s discourse
This billboard from 2013 epitomised the tribalism in the PN’s discourse

While in 2013 Labour used the election to court a variety of interest groups, even those with conflicting interests, such as environmentalists and developers in public gatherings, in the election so far Labour has focused exclusively on the gay lobby, relishing on the astounding performance of the Labour government, which is elevating Malta from a laggard to a leader in rights. This time round Labour does not need to court the developers’ lobby because its performance in government already testifies to its collusion with big business interests.

One major unknown remains the completion of the local plan revision, a process commenced in 2013 but deliberately left unfinalized. On the other hand Labour may have entirely lost hope on Green NGOs, while compensating for its abysmal record on planning by harping on air quality improvements thanks to the closure of the Marsa and old Delimara power stations.

The impact of small parties

Defectors: Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia have taken centre stage in this year’s election
Defectors: Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia have taken centre stage in this year’s election

One striking difference with 2013 is that the PN is this time round presenting itself as a coalition with Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party. Back in 2013 it was Labour which presented itself as a “coalition” of moderates and progressives. But the coalition did not include formal movements and parties but only individuals hailing from the other side glued together by their trust in Muscat.

But so far, despite striking a historic deal with the PN, the Democratic Party has failed to leave a mark on the campaign by selling itself as a guarantee of good governance in a PN government. Neither has the party harped on the policy concessions it gained in the common platform with the PN, nor explained the benefits of voting for the PD instead of directly voting for the PN.  One such innovative ideas first proposed by the PD and taken on board by the PN was the idea of reclaiming public ownership of the White Rocks site and turn it in to a public park.

On this score the new party has been caught missing in action. This has been compensated by the central stage taken by Marlene Farrugia and her partner Godfrey, the former Labour whip, whose speech at a PN mass meeting in Zebbug may well have been a turning point for the coalition.  

Alternattiva Demokratika, which managed to portray itself as a fresh and young alternative in 2013, personified by its former leader Michael Briguglio, is now led by a more veteran leadership with Arnold Cassola and Carmel Cacopardo. The university debate between the leaders, which saw the evergreen Arnold Cassola rising to the occasion with his barbs against Muscat and dose of intelligent humour, may have given the party a much needed boost. He surely came across as the most entertaining speaker of the debate even if his performance betrayed the party’s contradiction: that of fighting an election against both the PN and PL while clearly hinting that Labour is the worst choice.

For the party seems to be fighting an uphill battle, sending the contradictory message that both parties are the same, while at the same time hitting out at Labour on the central issue of the day, which remains Panama. In this sense Cassola's timid barbs against the opposition came across as a balancing act imposed by party strategy.

And the far-right ‘Patriots’ have also failed to ride the crest of an anti-establishment mood despite having wind in their sail. With immigration concerns no longer high on the agenda, the unseemly and anti-Islamic patriots are clearly out of step.

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