Godfrey Farrugia’s bid for MEP is a big gamble for the Democratic Party

The PD leader’s last-minute move to run for MEP when the polls show his chance are remote risk betraying the real scale of representation that the two-MP party has in the country

Farrugia’s candidature may be seen as a frank admission of the failure of its candidates to gain name recognition despite campaigning for months
Farrugia’s candidature may be seen as a frank admission of the failure of its candidates to gain name recognition despite campaigning for months

The last-minute candidature of former Labour minister Godfrey Farrugia on the Democratic Party’s list for Europe may well be a reaction to the party’s repeated failure to register in the polls, and a final attempt to gain traction in an increasingly crowded third party field.

In clear defiance of polls showing third parties failing to leave their mark in the race, 2019 seems destined to see the highest number of third party and independent candidates (17) contesting an MEP election ever – up from 9 in 2014, 11 in 2009 and only six in 2004. 

In this crowded field which also includes far-right candidates, the PD is in direct competition with the left-leaning Greens and with independent candidate Arnold Cassola, with all three ‘formations’ proclaiming their green credentials and issuing similar statements on issues like the proposed Gozo tunnel, which all three oppose.

The risk is that this fragmentation will only serve to strengthen the hold of the two major parties on Maltese politics.

But the PD’s hopes also hinge on harnessing support among disgruntled PN voters who shun party leader Adrian Delia and still identify with his predecessor’s Forza Nazzjonali outfit.

Farrugia may still be hoping that a chunk of the 35% of PN voters in 2017 who are currently undecided or intent on not voting, may end up voting for him. But even here competition is intense, as party heavyweights, including three former party leaders, having rallied behind the candidature of the embattled David Casa, who judging by the latest polls is at risk of not being elected.

Moreover even Arnold Cassola is making a pitch to these voters, judging by the names of his nominees which included Prof. Maryanne Lauri, an endorser of the Forza Nazzjonali in 2017.

In fact, Cassola who left the Greens over their readiness to discuss abortion, may well be targeting the same constituency targeted by the PD whose leaders have pandered to the pro-life lobby in the past.

And while in the 2017 the PD managed to take a free ride on the PN by inserting itself in the PN’s block vote and winning two seats in the process thanks to vote transfers, this time around the PD is running on its own steam and risks facing the same obstacles AD has faced in all elections since its inception.

Legitimising its two seats

With the election of a PD MEP extremely unlikely, the party’s fortunes depend on winning a respectable number of first count votes which would legitimise its present representation in the national parliament.  A miserable performance in the MEP elections will make the two PD MEPs in parliament even more vulnerable to criticism that they owe their two seats to PN voters, and that they cannot claim to represent any sizeable number of PD voters.  

Yet the PD’s appeal among PN voters may have been harmed with its interference in its former senior coalition partner’s internal politics, when Marlene Farrugia even floated the idea of contesting the PN’s leadership race and later putting spokes in the wheels of Adrian Delia’s election to parliament, by forcing bye-elections rather than giving him a safe route to take a seat in the House.

Unlike the more down-to-earth greens, who seem more focused on local elections where they have a more tangible chance of election, the PD has developed the pretensions and expectations of a large party which may be hard to fulfil.

Farrugia’s candidature also looks like a frank admission of the failure of its candidates to gain name recognition despite campaigning for months. This cannot be entirely blamed on the candidates themselves but reflects the difficulties faced by all third party candidates over the past decades. And it also shows the strong association the PD has with Godfrey and his partner Marlene Farrugia, with the latter taking more of a back-seat in the last months.

The best bet for the orange party

While Godfrey Farrugia may well be the party’s best bet in these election, he is also taking a big gamble. As a standing MP he has even more pressure to perform well in these elections.

He remains the PD’s best asset – moderate and soft-spoken but with a reputation for integrity across the political spectrum. He may still enjoy respect among Labour voters, especially those who resent the hold of the likes of Konrad Mizzi has on their party. He could be best placed to appeal to the nearly 20% of Labour voters in 2017 who are presently undecided or intent on not voting.

The great paradox is that the PD seem more focused on the restricted PN cohort, than on the larger Labour voting base where there are more floating voters. This focus on the disgruntled PN vote, particularly the ‘Daphne crowd’, may have limited the PD’s appeal to this segment. With the PD showing little signs of appealing to disgruntled PL voters, as a former Labour minister Godfrey Farrugia – who now regrets having voted against a no-confidence motion in Konrad Mizzi – may carry too much baggage for the anti-Delia PN voter.

And the PD also faces a mental block among Labour leaning voters who associate the party with Marlene Farrugia’s tirades against Muscat in anti-corruption demonstrations and the Egrant saga. The Greens, who avoided any association with the PN in the 2017 election, may be in a better position to pitch for the vote of Labour voters who share their concerns on issues like over-development.

Even environmentalists may note the contrast between his present opposition to the tunnel between the two islands, and the Forza Nazzjonali manifesto commitment for the development of tunnel between the two islands, albeit one which is linked to a national metro public transport system.

With chances of getting elected MEP remote, the question facing the party is: what would be considered a good performance for the party in these elections? Farrugia may well be the orange party’s best bet for a respectable result, the party may be putting all its eggs in one basket.

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