Five game-changers that tried to change the course of Maltese elections

Elections are often won or lost due to manoeuvres and game-changing gimmicks at the eleventh hour. Raphael Vassallo looks back on a few of the major events which changed (or tried to change) the course of past elections

Then Labour leader Alfred Sant (right) at TVM where he was faced by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando (seated centre, front row)
Then Labour leader Alfred Sant (right) at TVM where he was faced by Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando (seated centre, front row)

1. ‘Terinu’ - the archetype

The year was 1927. Tensions were running high ahead of a pivotal election contested by, in one corner, Lord Gerald Strickland’s Constitutional Party (in a ‘compact alliance’ with Colonel William Savona’s Malta Labour Party); and in the other, the Nationalist Party led by Sir Ugo Mifsud.

Simmering in the background was mounting hostility between Strickland and the Catholic Church over the latter’s right to permanent representation in the Senate, as well as the so-called ‘language question’: nominally, a choice between English and Italian as language of instruction... but a choice which nonetheless divided Malta’s political allegiance between the colonial authorities of the day, and nearby Italy at a time when Fascism was on the rise.

The campaign itself had already been marred by sporadic violence, with police having to intervene during meetings on both sides. On election day itself, the PN circulated a leaflet containing the copy of an affidavit signed by Ettore Bono (aka ‘Terinu’): a waiter who declared that he had spotted Strickland in full Masonic regalia at a banquet some 30 years earlier.

The affidavit was not enough to overturn the election result - the Compact Alliance won the election, though its rule would be short-lived - but it nonetheless had an enormous impact, both on popular perceptions of Strickland himself, as well as on the dynamics of practically all future elections.

The word ‘Terinata’ has since entered the national lexicon to signify last-minute, back-handed attempts to influence voter intentions. Needless to add, there have been any number since...

2. Those 8,000 jobs...

Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, accused of dishing out 8,000 jobs on the eve of the 1987 election
Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, accused of dishing out 8,000 jobs on the eve of the 1987 election

When Alfred Sant attributed his 2008 defeat to the ‘power of incumbency’, it was hardly the first time that a sitting government stood accused of using that power to bounce back from an otherwise certain defeat.

In an earlier twist that would form a blueprint for future elections, former prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was accused of liberally dishing out 8,000 jobs on the eve of the 1987 election: at a time when unemployment stood at a record 13%, and the MLP was widely expected to lose.

Mifsud Bonnici would (years later) defend this initiative by arguing that the recruiting had taken place between 1985 and 1987, following a decision in 1981 to freeze public sector employment until 1984.

Be that as it may, the damage was done, and Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami was forced to write to the 8,000 recruits to assure them that their newly acquired job would be secure even after a change in government.

Government duly changed in May 1987; and sure enough the same 8,000 jobs would time and again be cited as the official reason for Malta’s growing deficit all the way until the 2003 election.

3. Foetus frenzy

Tonio Borg
Tonio Borg

If association with Freemasonry was the big no-no of the 1920s, anything less than a public condemnation of abortion in all its forms became almost a sine qua non of electoral success in the last three or four elections.

Or at least, that was the plan as painstakingly engineered by former justice minister Tonio Borg, who left no stone unturned to transform an issue on which there is broad political consensus into a major plank of the PN’s electoral strategy.

For a change, the battlefield proved to be Malta’s first ever European election in 2005, in which AD candidate Arnold Cassola was perceived (rightly, as it happened) to pose a major threat to the PN’s chances.

Borg tried to counter this threat by insisting that Cassola – formerly secretary-general of the pro-choice European Greens – had rendered his position untenable by mere association with a European Party that failed to share his own ultra-religious pro-life zeal.

As tactics go, this one clearly backfired: Cassola deflected the accusation by reminding Borg that it was the PN’s political ally and main inspiration (the Democrazia Cristiana) that had legalised abortion in nearby Italy. He would go on to attract over 28,000 votes - not enough to get elected, but more than enough to thwart the PN’s ambitions for a majority in the European Parliament.

Surprisingly, the PN (and Borg in particular) would aggressively cling to the failed abortion tactic in future: teaming up with radical NGO Gift of Life to propose a Constitutional amendment that would place both Labour leader Alfred Sant and AD chairman Harry Vassallo in the awkward predicament of appearing to oppose a pro-life initiative.   

The abortion card may or may not have contributed to AD’s poor performance in that election, but it is difficult to determine its actual electoral impact. However, a similar ruse in the 2009 European election likewise boomeranged: this time, Labour MEP John Attard Montalto was singled out for attacks on his voting record vis-a-vis abortion. Nonetheless he would be emphatically returned to the EP in that election... and with Borg himself forced to change tack on abortion when interviewed by MEPs for the role of Commissioner, the entire issue appears to have finally fizzled out.

4. Repeater classes and DNA disasters

Louis Galea
Louis Galea

Elsewhere, the ability to turn around electoral fortunes – possibly even to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – is by no means limited only to subterfuge of the ‘Terinu’ variety. Often the same effect can be obtained simply by capitalising on the opportunities provided by one’s political opponents; and again, a cursory glance at recent examples suggests that the PN is miles ahead of Labour at this particular game.

In 2008, PL shadow education minister Carmelo Abela proposed a ‘reception class’ as a main pillar of Labour’s education policy. The idea was warmly received by education specialists (who actually understood what he meant); but it was Louis Galea’s quick-witted response that effectively sealed the fate of this particular proposal... and quite possibly of the entire election.

Dismissing the proposal with the memorable phrase ‘repeater class’, Galea scored a major double victory for the PN. On one hand, his deft quip appealed to a deep-seated psychological aversion to failure among Maltese parents. On the other, it forced the Labour Party to change its script at the last-minute: investing precious electoral energy in ‘explaining’ its proposal over and over again, in what became a constant headache for Labour.

In the end, however, it proved a Pyrrhic victory for Galea. Having arguably secured the election result for his party, the former education minister failed to get elected on the fifth district... losing his seat to newcomer Franco Debono. (The rest, as they say, is history.)

The same election also illustrated how political parties have an uncanny tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.

Addressing a party event, Labour deputy leader Charles Mangion gave his opponents a gift-wrapped weapon to use against Labour in the campaign: arguing repeatedly that ‘there must be something wrong with the Nationalist Party DNA’.

The PN machine capitalised on this totally gratuitous slip-up with rocket-propelled accuracy: transforming it into a full-frontal attack on PN supporters, and mobilising its full machinery - including placards, radio programmes, printed T-shirts, the works – to squeeze it for every last drop of political mileage possible.

Again, it is impossible to determine exactly how much this gaffe contributed to the PL’s defeat in that election; but it certainly taught all politicians the value to that archaic expression: ‘look before you leap’.

5. Mistra: the final frontier

Lastly, electoral fortunes often boil down to a question of simple timing. As illustrated by the Terinu incident itself, it is not enough to have damning information (real or invented) on a political rival. Timing is also crucial - as Alfred Sant so spectacularly illustrated by failing to properly capitalise on what could easily have proved the game-changer of 2008.

The case concerned Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando – back then still in the PN’s good books – and in particular, a contract for the construction of a nightclub on land he owned in environmentally sensitive Mistra.

The timely revelation of this contract would no doubt have caused serious damage to a PN which had already been associated with numerous acts of environmental vandalism over the years. But Sant arguably mishandled the case - passing up an opportunity to face down Pullicino Orlando himself at a BA debate; and much more seriously, by producing the damning contract at the latest possible moment... during the final BA debate, when electoral law prevented all media from actually reporting the case.

Voters therefore went to the polls largely unaware that previous allegations had since been established as facts; with the result that an otherwise explosive revelation came across as a damp squib at best.

Labour lost that election, and was left to ponder the lessons learnt about political timing.

The PN would later rue lessons of its own from that incident... but in the short-term it once again proved the more capable player, in that all-important game of winning elections.