Midterm results: Did PN voters stay at home or vote Labour?

Is the widening gap between the two parties attributable to a higher abstention among the PN’s cohort of voters or are there indications of yet another migration towards Labour?

The results of the European elections suggest that Labour made small gains over and above its support in the 2014 European elections, and the 2017 general elections.

Indeed the gap between the two big parties was 7,376 votes higher than in the general election, but only 2,530 votes higher if votes for PD candidates are deducted from the PN’s general election tally. The PD roughly retained the same level of support as in the 2017 general election. 

But in local elections, where small parties were absent in most localities, the PL made more substantial gains, with its lead increasing to 47,716 votes. This is 6,990 votes greater than the gap between the two big parties in 2017 (if PD votes are deducted) and 11,836 votes greater than the gap between Labour and the Forza Nazzjonali coalition. 

Nationalist MEP David Casa, PN leader Adrian Delia, Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola
Nationalist MEP David Casa, PN leader Adrian Delia, Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola

Yet these comparisons do not take into consideration the fact that turnout in both MEP elections and local elections was substantially lower than in the last general elections. 

Added to that is the possibility that PN abstentions were more pronounced among non-voters; and comparing local elections in 2019 with local elections in 2013 and 2015 is not reliable, simply because turnouts on both occasions were higher when they coincided with general elections in 2013 and the 2015 hunting referendum.

So a more precise comparison is that with MEP elections in 2014. The gap between the two main parties increased by 8,899 votes since then, partly explained by a 2-percentage point drop in turnout. There is no way to know which party was mostly penalised by this drop, and the gap between both major parties is impacted by the increase in third party votes in the 2019 MEP election. 

Moreover, any shift from the PN to the PL in these elections may well have been offset by Labour losses to the far-right Norman Lowell, with these votes returning to Labour in local elections. But there is no way through which one can verify such movements.

Despite these uncertainties one can still establish a number of trends: although there is an indication of a higher abstention rate among former PN voters in both elections, a shift from the PN towards Labour, especially in local elections is plausible; and further number-crunching excludes a number of assumptions made in the past days.

  Gap Turnout PN vote PL vote Third party vote
2013 General Election 35,107 309,600 132,426 167,533 597
2013/2015 Local Election 33,178 291,270 121,012 154,190 6,520
2014 MEP Election 33,757 257,588 100,705 134,462 16,604
2017 General Election 35,280 314,966 135,696 170,976 2,993
2017 General (PN minus PD) 40,126 314,966 130,850 170,976 7,839*
2019 MEP Election 42,656 270,022 98,611 141,267 19,654
2019 Local Election 47,116 271,569 103,398 150,514 5,762

*Including PD which cintested election on same list of PN
1. No evidence that PN voters who voted Casa and Metsola abstained in concurrent local elections

The results show that practically the same amount of voters voted in both local and European elections. In fact, the turnout in MEP elections was only 1,547 votes higher than in local elections. The percentage turnout was 10 per cent lower in local council elections, but this discrepancy between the two elections may well be accounted for by the larger number of registered voters who can vote in local elections (433,596 in local elections vs. 371,643 in MEP elections) mainly due to a larger number of foreigners who can vote. This suggests that the vast majority of those voting in MEP elections also voted in local elections. 

The only discrepancy between the two elections amounts to an additional 2,085 invalid votes in local elections over and above the 9,810 in MEP elections, which may be explained by the absence of third parties in a large number of localities. From this one can deduce that there was no significant amount of PN voters who voted for Metsola or Casa in MEP elections and then abstained in the local elections. 

Therefore the increased gap between the two parties in local elections cannot be attributed to abstention among PN voters. This is confirmed by the PN’s increased share of the vote in localities like Sliema, Attard and Lija where the drop in turnout did not penalise the PN.
2. The actual number of PN voters in MEP elections was lower than in the 2014 elections and lower than in concurrent local elections

One indication that some PN voters may have preferred to stay at home is that despite the increase in the number of voters, the actual number of PN voters dropped in absolute terms from 100,705 in 2014 to only 98, 611 in the 2019 European elections, despite an increase of 12,434 voters.

Yet some of these voters may well have voted for third parties. In fact, the number of those voting PN in parallel local elections was higher, reaching 103,398. This is a clear indication that 4,787 voters voted for another party in the European elections and then voted for a PN candidate in local elections.

But the results also indicate there was an even larger number of voters who voted Labour in local elections, and another party in MEP elections. Moreover the PN actually got 4,787 votes more in local elections than in European elections, while Labour got 9,247 votes over and above its European tally.

Labour’s better performance in local elections seems to contradict Muscat’s attempt at transforming the MEP elections into a presidential contest
Labour’s better performance in local elections seems to contradict Muscat’s attempt at transforming the MEP elections into a presidential contest

3. In an indication that the PL lost votes to third parties, it performed better in local elections where Norman Lowell was not a factor

Labour performed better in local elections where third parties got 5,762 votes, than in the European elections where third parties got almost 20,000 votes – indeed increasing their vote share from 6.6% in 2014 (16,604 votes) to 7.8% (19654 votes). 

Labour’s better performance in local elections seems to contradict Muscat’s attempt at transforming the MEP elections into a presidential contest: by performing better at the local elections, which were less associated with Muscat’s national appeal, such results suggest grassroots strength and augur well for Labour’s post-Muscat future.

Therefore, considering that on the same day an equal amount of voters voted in both elections, and Labour’s majority increased from 42,656 in MEP elections to 47,116 in local elections, one can only conclude Labour performed better in direct contests with the PN – that is in 44 out 67 local elections held – because third parties only contested 23 localities.

One possibility is that of a disjointed vote where voters opted for third parties in MEP elections and Labour in local elections. The limited information from vote transfers in MEP elections suggests that PD candidates were more PN-leaning while Lowell’s voters were marginally PL-leaning. 

But since Lowell, and to a lesser extent, the PD’s Cami Appelgren were eliminated at a very late stage, their non-transferable votes could well have included preferences to candidates which by that stage had already been elected or eliminated. 

Another possibility is that the more limited third party vote in local elections penalised the PN more than the PL, as was surely the case in Gharb, where a list headed by a former PN mayor won 417 votes and to a lesser extent in Haz-Zebbug where votes for independent candidate Steve Zammit Lupi largely penalised the PN. In some localities like Sliema, Lija and Attard, the PN managed to increase its share by clawing back votes from third parties. Yet the PL still managed to increase its vote by three percentage points in Attard, two points in Lija and one point in Sliema. 

The PN’s decline in southern localities was even more dramatic, with the PL gaining six points in Birzebbugia and seven points in Mqabba. Possibly it is former PN voters in southern localities rather than those living in the north harbour who pose the greatest difficulty for the party. Ignoring these voters to keep the party afloat in northern affluent localities may have been the party’s greatest flaw in these elections.
4. Surveys are the only reliable way to assess the shift from PN to the PL over 2017 figures

While the results cannot conclusively prove that there was a shift from the PN to the PL, surveys whose results were vindicated by the results of these elections, did predict a small but significant shift from the PN to the PL.

The overall MEP results do not confirm that such a shift took place. But it may be possible that in MEP elections the shift between the two main parties was offset by Labour voters opting for a third party like Lowell, only to return back to Labour in local elections.

The last MT survey before the election showed that while 5% of PN voters in 2017 intended to vote Labour, only 2% of PL voters in 2017 intended to vote PN. Moreover, while 2% of PL voters trusted Delia more than Muscat, 8% of PN voters trusted Muscat more than Delia.

Previous surveys had shown a similar trend.

While it is not clear whether any such shift occurred in MEP elections due to the relatively high share taken by third parties, it is possible that this shift was partly reflected in results for local elections.
5. Surveys which correctly predicted the abstention rate also suggested a higher rate of abstention in PN cohort

In the last MaltaToday survey, 28% were either still undecided or declared their intention not to vote in MEP elections. This was just 1 percentage point more than the percentage of voters who abstained in the actual election. 

While PN voters were more undecided on how they would be voting, a larger number of PL voters were saying that they would not be voting. In fact, the last survey showed that while 9% of PL voters were intent on not voting, only 5% of PN voters expressed the same intention. On the other hand while 23% of PN voters were undecided, only 11% of PL voters were undecided. 

This means that while 28% of PN voters were undecided or intent not to vote, 20% of PL voters were in the same position. This confirms a higher abstention rate among PN voters. 

But it is also possible that some undecided PN voters ultimately opted to vote for Casa, who in the same survey was still trailing behind Frank Psaila, who ultimately got 7,000 less votes than Casa. 

Overall surveys suggest that while abstention was marginally higher among PN voters, it was also substantial among Labour voters. 
In fact, the extent of Labour’s victory in both elections raised the question whether the PL even has a pale-red category willing to lash out at government in mid-term elections, especially in local elections where one would expect discontentment on environmental issues to surface.

It is also possible that some in this category of Labour voters did not vote. Possibly their abstention left no mark on the result because their impact was offset by an even larger number of disgruntled PN voters who also stayed at home. In this way any message of dissent from these voters failed to reach its destination, being drowned out by the noise of Labour’s victory.