Four questions the polls can’t answer as Labour is poised for victory

Labour is set to win four out of Malta’s six seats and widen its lead on the PN. Polls also indicate that frontrunners Miriam Dalli and Roberta Metsola will be confirmed as MEPs. So what are the lingering questions? MaltaToday asks

The Prime Minister at a political event in Zejtun
The Prime Minister at a political event in Zejtun

1. Will the turnout continue to decrease and which party will lose most voters to abstention?

The latest MT survey shows only 9% of voters saying that they won’t be voting in next Saturday’s elections. But a considerable 19% are still undecided just a week before the election, suggesting that a chunk of these may not vote.

MEP elections normally have a considerably lower turnout than European elections: turnouts have fallen from 82% in 2004, to 79% in 2009 and 75% in 2014 – considerably lower than the last general election’s 92% turnout. The question is not just whether the turnout will drop any further but whether this drop will penalise one party more than the other. While the PN fears a drop its own voters who dislike Delia, the PL fears complacency among its voters, who regard this election as a forgone conclusion. The survey indicates that 9% of PL voters compared to only 5% of PN voters are intent on not voting. Yet the PN has a greater share of undecided voters, 23%, suggesting that the scale of the PN’s defeat depends on its ability to convince these voters in the last days of the campaign.

On the other hand Labour stands to benefit if voters see these elections as a direct choice between Muscat and Delia. No wonder that while the PN emphasises its individual candidates in their last billboards (banking on their appeal to different segments and factions), Labour is emphasising unity behind its leader: indeed, 90% of PL voters trust Muscat, but only 53% of PN voters trust Delia. The fact that a third of PN voters don’t trust Delia may make it more difficult to recover votes among the undecided segment, especially if these use their vote to force the PN leader to resign.

Had the PN been in good shape, Labour would have faced some difficulties in these elections, which has a minority of 7% who trust neither leader. In reality the polls suggest that Labour’s margin of victory may even be greater than predicted – firstly because 5% of PN voters in 2017 will vote Labour now (as against 2% of PL voters who will vote PN), and a staggering 8% of PN voters trust Muscat compared to 1.5% of PL voters who trust Delia. This suggests that Labour may benefit from a third wave of switchers.

2. Who will be the second Nationalist MEP to be elected?

Polls show incumbent Roberta Metsola as the indisputable frontrunner, which means that she will easily secure re-election. The latest MaltaToday polls put Frank Psaila in second position, trailed by incumbent David Casa. Previous surveys also showed Peter Agius closely trailing Casa but this was not the case with the latest poll in which Agius registered less support than old-timer Francis Zammit Dimech.

One factor weighing on such polls is the +/- 4.2% margin of error which practically means that within the PN ranks no candidate enjoys an assailable lead over the others and that candidates who are not even registering in polls could still garner a considerable amount of support.

Much will depend on how votes are transferred from one PN candidate to the other. Candidates can inherit votes in two ways: whole votes from weaker candidates who are eliminated during the process and a proportion of votes of candidates who surpass the quota. Since the battle of the PN’s second seat reflects the factional divide in the party between Delia loyalists who prefer Psaila, and the party’s old guard which prefers Casa, it is widely expected that while the elimination of weaker candidates will benefit Psaila, the surplus from Metsola will benefit Casa.

Therefore much depends on whether Metsola will be elected with a large surplus or not: if she struggles to reach her quota, Casa could be left behind as Psaila inherits more votes from eliminated candidates. But it’s perfectly possible that not all Metsola’s voters identify in Casa’s hawkish approach, while the votes for eliminated candidates may go either way.

One problem for the PN emanating from factional voting could be that a number of its votes are not transferable, which means that these will not be inherited by anyone. Another factor is the donkey vote, which would be a significant advantage for Peter Agius especially in the unlikely event that the party has a chance for a third seat.

3. Apart from Dalli and Sant who will be the other two Labour MEPs to be elected?

Consistently former Labour leader Alfred Sant has emerged as the party’s second strongest candidate after Miriam Dalli, who enjoys an unassailable lead. Although the latest survey has seen Sant losing some ground, he still enjoys a considerable lead over Josianne Cutajar who is next in line. The way Dalli’s surplus gets distributed among the other candidates may have a determining impact on who gets elected or not. Alex Aguis Saliba may also benefit from the donkey vote being the first on Labour’s list. Labour is not perceived as not being factionally divided, which will help ensure that more of its votes are transferred within the party’s pool. This makes the election of a third seat for the PN even more unlikely.

4. Which will be Malta’s largest third party after these elections?

It is difficult to assess the strength of third parties simply because the margin of error is even greater than the individual support enjoyed by any these parties.

The problem is further fragmentation. Despite their failure to elect an MEP, third party candidates have scored over 5% in MEP elections. But surveys already provide a number of indications. Despite gaining a foothold in parliament through its pre-electoral alliance with the PN, the Democratic Party has so far failed in becoming a reference point for any critical mass of disgruntled voters. Much of the party’s hopes hinge on whether any undecided Nationalists will shift towards it in the last days of the campaign.

But competition for this vote is intense, with the PD competing with independent candidate Arnold Cassola and the anti-Delia faction in the PN, which has rallied around Casa. Surveys indicate that AD, which seem more focused on local elections taking place on the same day, has managed to hold on to its normal support in general elections. Among the small parties the greens may be the more palatable option for disgruntled Labour voters. It also remains to be seen whether Cassola’s independent bid will simply eat in to the AD and PD or whether he will attract a wider segment of voters.

But the dark horse of these elections is Norman Lowell whose campaign outbursts included a description of Auchwitz as a “Disneyland”. MT surveys put Lowell’s extreme right outfit as the third largest party, but the level of support remains below to that in 2014 when the party gained 2.7% and was only surpassed by a whisker by the Greens. The arraignment of two members of the army for the racial murder of an African migrant may still dent Lowell’s support in the final days of the campaign, during which the country has recoiled at the dangers posed by racism.

The risk of Lowell becoming Malta’s largest third party may even galvanise anti-racist third party voters, who may have lacked a sufficient motivation to vote. Yet an affirmation by Lowell at this stage would send a chilling message that the far right is now a permanent fixture in Maltese politics.

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