Inside the ‘third party’ side-show: Pluralism or fragmentation?

Maltese voters will probably be faced with the longest ballot sheet in Maltese electoral history in the forthcoming MEP elections. Is Malta becoming more pluralistic or are small parties increasingly prone to splits, divisions and personal vanities?

Nominations for candidates contesting the 2024 MEP elections in June will close tomorrow but the third-party field is already overcrowded, a sign of the now-established eagerness by upstarts and disgruntled exiles to exploit growing disillusion with the two main parties.

Maltese politics has been dominated by the Labour-Nationalist mainstream for all its post-Independence history, and then not only electorally but through the various social spaces and influence they occupy in private spheres of action or the civil service. The advent of European elections in 2004 has since allowed the fostering of a wider phalanx of third-party and independent candidates or single-issue campaigners hoping to make a splash in an election where no government is at stake.

On election day in June however, voters will be faced with a very long ballot sheet full of names they hardly know, making it even harder for potential third-party voters to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Surely enough, the overload of third-party candidates is a sign that many of them are interepreting their political traction inside their digital echo chambers, as the prospect of real success among the wider electorate. But in the real world of voting, there is no social media algorithm guiding political choices. The risk is having a bizarre side-show of political chancers who will ultimately turn off middle-of-the-road voters and give a bad name to third-party politics in general.

The far-right circus

Banking on local migration worries and probably emboldened by a right-wing drift in European and global politics, the 2024 election is surely attracting a record number of conservative and far-right candidates.

The inability for this rag-tag ensemble of Christian conservatives, law-and-order nativists, and Nazi sympathisers to coalesce behind a candidate who might otherwise hide the more distatesful aspects of right-wing politics, speaks volumes on the personal vanities that thankfully foil any realistic chance of election.

The Maltese right-wing is broadly split into at least three camps: conservatives who are defined by traditional or religious values, the radical unashamedly ‘racialist’ far-right, and Trump-inspired alt-rightists who toy with conspiracy theories on ‘the new world order’.

The more mainstream conservative camp, which at European level would fall in the EP’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping – which includes parties like Spain’s far-right Vox and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy – is best represented by Edwin Vassallo. The former Nationalist MP is best remembered as the only to vote against marriage equality in 2017 and is now projecting himself as the standard-bearer of this Maltese exceptionalism on abortion in the face of an inconsequential resolution recently passed by MEPs calling on Malta to decriminalise the termination of pregnancies.

Whether Vassallo can carry with him similar constituents who might have voted for him as a Nationalist MP, is questionable, given that so many other formations are also hosting similar ‘exiles’, like Partit Popolari.

Competing for the conservative vote will be Ivan Grech Mintoff, whose Abba party opposes civil liberties and is closely linked to right-wing evangelical Christians like Gordon Manché. Grech Mintoff – the clue is in the surname – also tries to appeal to an old Labour vote by stamping his feet in defence of Maltese constitutional neutrality, a stance recently burnished by a pathetic, limp-wristed stunt where he hurled eggs directly at the floor by the side of Prime Minister Robert Abela at the Freedom Monument. The comical moment might yet be his enduring legacy.

Another novelty for the right-wing field is the history lecturer Simon Mercieca, whose blog today hosts the Trump-inspired, alt-right of Maltese politics: traditionalists Catholics have a home here, together with pro-Putin commentaries, anti-vax conspiracy theories, as well as bizarre claims on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Mercieca revels in this ecosystem of dropouts from the mainstream, choosing the disgraced former EU commissioner and PN minister John Dalli to sign his MEP candidature. While symptomatic of Dalli’s descent to the political netherworld, it does point to how far-right vultures fancy feasting on the PN’s half-dead corpse, eyeing their own pound of flesh.

And yet so far, the only right-wing candidate to register in the polls is Norman Lowell, a self-professed “racialist”, Hitler-sympathiser and denier of the Holocaust, who once called for “black coal” to be annihilated, a baggage that excludes him from sitting with any current group represented in the European Parliament.

Lowell’s sheer name recognition, with his brazen yet comical statements on racial supremacy and immigrant-bashing, has seen him amass more votes in each European election he contested since 2004.

But there could be another sociological reason for Lowell’s relatively modest success. Unlike his mainstream bedfellows, who seek to appeal to voters too traditional to experiment with third-party politics, Lowell appeals to younger and more anti-establishment voters attracted by his eccentric streak. Although having lost his novelty, his ‘prophet of doom’ image finds followers lauding him for ‘predicting’ the rise in migratory influxes – even though his pet hate, black asylum seekers, are a tiny fraction of the population.

But for some voters, Lowell’s Imperium Europa is the unadulterated form of xenophobia: If white hate has a home, it’s here, and not the imitation-crab peddled by religious conservatives. Indeed, Lowell’s anti-clericalism (among his artwork is the fantastically named ‘Raging Bull Sodomises Cloistered Nun’) makes it the ideal far-right parking space for xenophobic and disenchanted Labour voters.

In this sense Edwin Vassallo and Norman Lowell stand on opposite poles in the right-wing constellation. And even though social conservatives may find Lowell outrightly repulsive, mainstream conservative voters are less likely to break with tradition to experiment with third-party politics. The promise of backing either of the mainstream parties is obtaining some form of patronage. Indeed, there is something surreal in listening to a PN stalwart like Edwin Vassallo now lashing against the two-party system after having being part of that same hegemonic system for decades.

Competing shrubs in the green ecosystem

It would be unfair to lump the Greens and level-headed independents like Arnold Cassola in the same bestiary of Nazi apologists, anti-vax and Soros conspiracists and moral crusaders. But certainly, fragmentation is not limited to the conservative and far-right camp.

For the second consecutive election, the Greens will be facing competition from a former leader and perennial MEP candidate: Arnold Cassola. The Greens themselves are fielding the highest number of candidates for the European elections ever: Party leader Sandra Gauci, who has cultivated a more populist, down to earth – albeit sometimes crass – approach; long-serving Ralph Cassar, Mina Jack Tolu, and Rachelle Deguara.

Cassola may certainly have history on his side, but his downside is that he is running for the fifth consecutive time after coming so close to getting elected 20 years back. He too has lost the power of novelty, even while being a tenacious yet spent force who defies the law of diminishing returns. As a more conservative option to ADPD, Cassola appears more palatable to pale-blue voters who would generally fall in the engulfing tide commanded by Roberta Metsola. Cassola will probably hope he could inherit a substantial number of votes from the PN’s frontrunner.

On the other hand, ADPD’s best bet is to maximise support among more progressive and liberal voters, especially those hailing from a Labour background. Still, people still find it hard to associate ADPD with a proposal or a particular idea which people actually talk about. For a party that was the first to push the boundaries on themes like divorce and same sex marriage in the past, political traction now eludes them with so many of their proposals part of the political mainstream.

Curiously, the party still strays away from the abortion issue – despite its pro-choice candidates – which could otherwise help ADPD position itself as a socially progressive force. Despite its left credentials, it still struggles to communicate with disenchanted Labour voters. The latter will always prefer parking in the abstentionist camp.

Another minor competitor in the socially liberal ecosystem is Volt. Part of a pan-European franchise, it has been more forthcoming on issues like abortion. It’s most likely impact on the election will be that of taking a small bite from the already restricted green vote.

Unintentionally, comedian James Ryder’s light-hearted and satirical candidacy could also take another perhaps even bigger bite from the green and liberal vote, simply because Ryder is more likely to entertain a demographic of younger, tertiary-educated voters who tend to be more socially liberal and adventurous in their political choices.

Certainly enough, 2024’s political side-show will be the race for the title of Malta’s ‘third largest party’ – in 2019 it was Lowell’s Imperium, a first for the far-right as it reaped the benefits of the fragmented liberal left.

Five years on, the race remains wide open thanks to fragmentation in both camps. But while the prize is largely symbolic, the challenge posed by the far-right could well be seen as an invitation to progressive voters to coalesce behind the third party or independent candidate closest to their values who gain the most traction during the campaign.

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This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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