[ANALYSIS] Muscat vs Delia: a presidential contest or an abortion referendum?

For Labour, MEP elections are a presidential contest between Muscat and Delia while for the PN these elections are now “a referendum on abortion.” What does this say on the identity of both major parties?

Muscat is presenting the MEP elections as a direct contest between him and Adrian Delia, in full comfort of polls showing an unassailable trust lead
Muscat is presenting the MEP elections as a direct contest between him and Adrian Delia, in full comfort of polls showing an unassailable trust lead

No government is at stake in European elections, which in Malta will elect six MEPs from a host of candidates, most of whom contest under the umbrella of a European political family.

But with European elections coinciding with local elections, and held two years after Labour’s re-election in 2017, they are undeniably Joseph Muscat’s and Labour’s mid-term test. Indeed, these were appointments during which pale blue voters often used to send a protest vote to Nationalist administrations.

But Labour this time is averting this prospect with Muscat’s presentation of the MEP elections as a direct contest between him and Adrian Delia, in full comfort of polls showing an unassailable trust lead. It is a tactic aimed at pale red voters who despite their misgivings on Labour’s record, still prefer Muscat to Delia and Labour to the PN. It is also aimed at complacent Labour voters who may abstain simply because the country’s government is not at stake, in the full knowledge that Labour is bound to win with a huge margin.

The downside for democracy is that the projection of MEP and local elections into a rehashed general election, actually diminishes the power of voters to clip the wings of the government in office, making it more liable to listen to their concerns after the polls close.

Adrian Delia: erratic campaign message turned election into 'referendum' on abortion
Adrian Delia: erratic campaign message turned election into 'referendum' on abortion

One advantage for Labour is that the PN’s refusal to frame these elections into a presidential contest, comes across as cowardly. In their first debate, Delia looked weak when making the point that these elections are not a contest between himself and Muscat, simply because Muscat was effectively using the debate to project the contest as one between the two politicians. This left PN strategists at a loss. This explains why Delia is now so keen to emphasise Muscat’s refusal to confront him on Xarabank, even if a final confrontation will be taking place in the more sanitised environment of a Broadcasting Authority debate.

But instead of emphasising the PN’s main strength in these elections – the fact that despite all the problems it faces, it has still presented a decent team of candidates with a degree of competence – it has now gone into overdrive to find a unitary battle-cry to galvanise its traditional voting base without relying exclusively on the tried and tested corruption issue.

This may explain why Delia has now played the abortion card, despite fully knowing that MEPs have no say on its introduction in Malta.

The last bastion of party identity

The PN’s logic can be explained by polls showing a vast majority of the Maltese being against the legalisation of abortion.

Yet in the absence of any indication that a future Labour government intends to legalise abortion, it is hard to project the contest between the two main parties as being one about abortion. One cannot simply invent an issue which commands majority support on the eve of an election in the absence of any real threat to the voting base one is appealing to.

Sure enough there are indications that Labour candidates are less obsessed with the issue, and that Labour has a slightly larger minority of pro-choice voters than the PN.

In this sense the PN may well have reaped some benefits among the conservative cohort of voters by emphasising its candidates’ unequivocal stance against abortion, in a context where reproductive rights form part of the European Socialists’ platform, of which Labour forms part.

Yet even here the PN should be cautious. It was the Irish Fine Gael, a member of the EPP, which actually proposed the law which legalised abortion in Ireland in 2018. Moreover, even conservatives may be appalled by the PN’s strategy. By pushing the issue too hard, the PN actually risks putting the pro-life cause in jeopardy: for if the election is a referendum on abortion, how would one interpret the result if the PN loses by a large margin? Would this mean that voters have in any way endorsed abortion?

The PN is also sending a message to pro-choice voters, even those inclined to vote for it for other reasons, that the party does not even want their vote. While the liberal minority may be numerically small in the current PN, there may well be a larger cohort of liberal voters who had backed the PN before 2013 and may be having doubts on Labour now.  

The choice of abortion as a main battle-cry suggests that the PN still suffers from the identity crisis that afflicted it back in 2003, when the party won elections on the basis of its pro-EU mission, through which it reached out to a vast coalition of liberal, conservative and even left-wing voters. Following that, the PN found itself projecting itself as the safer pair of hands in government, a tactic which worked against Alfred Sant, but which ultimately failed against Muscat.

Yet the same prospect may return to haunt Labour.

Presently the main issue which glues Labour together is Joseph Muscat’s charisma and the positive performance of the Maltese economy. When it comes to many environmental and social issues, Labour is pregnant with contradictions. In fact Muscat’s greatest skill is his role in bridging over these differences and projecting a sense of purpose and unity. Yet like the PN before it, Labour is slowly becoming more of a cheerleading club for its leader and a factory of appointees, than a place where ideas are discussed and resolved.

Without Muscat at the helm, Labour risks a repeat of the Nationalist decline under Gonzi after Eddie Fenech Adami’s departure.

Nationalism filling the gap left by social justice

This explains why European elections are so bland when it comes to issues, especially social issues like the discrepancy between economic growth and wages, issues which could potentially endanger the pro business appeal of the two big parties.

For while both parties are constantly portraying themselves as the defenders of Malta’s tax regime from its mainly left-wing detractors in Europe, they rarely speak about the need of harmonisation on matters like welfare and wages. The danger is that Maltese voters have now been conditioned not to consider these bread and butter issues relevant to any election.

As amply displayed by some of its billboards, aspiration is now more important than social justice and equality for Labour. One issue which has defied this trend, mainly thanks to a vibrant civil society, is the environment. But with the exception of Alternattiva Demokratika and a few other candidates, this is rarely framed in a radical critique of the dominant economic model.

It is, therefore, no surprise that these elections have seen a resurgent nationalism which takes many forms, ranging from concern on foreign workers to an uncritical defence of reputation and tax regime. In the end both parties have ended up defending Maltese exceptionalism on abortion and the tax regime.   On taxation, Labour is clearly at odds with its own  political family, whose lead candidate is clearly committed to push for an 18% minimum tax rate.

No wonder a poll on issues by MaltaToday shows that something as intangible as “protecting Malta’s reputation” is a more relevant issue for both PL and PN voters, than rising rents, low wages and over-development.