The lion that can’t roar too loudly

How will the rising political temperature impact on the turnout and the behaviour of non-voters? JAMES DEBONO reflects on Robert Abela’s tight rope walk between roaring loudly to mobilise hard core supporters and the risk of waking up dormant voters. 

Like a lion whose roar can re-unite his pride but risks scaring away the prey, Robert Abela is walking a tight rope. 

Faced with the imminent arraignment of his predecessor in relation to the Vitals hospitals inquiry, Abela is hitting out at the magistrate in a bid to mobilise disgruntled hard-core supporters. But at the same time, his roar risks awakening dormant categories of voters whose abstention favours his party. 

Understanding what ticks different categories of non-voters is therefore of paramount importance to strategists in both parties. Their main aim is to increase the turnout in favourable demographics while keeping it as low as possible in more hostile categories. 

Surveys suggest that there are at least three very broad categories of non-voters, which could shape the outcome of mid-term elections and who may well respond differently to increased polarisation in the wake of the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry on the hospital scandal. 

Disenchanted (or apathetic) younger voters 

Non-voters include an anonymous and hard to decipher mass of disenchanted or apathetic voters who either resent both parties or are simply disinterested and have switched off due to electoral fatigue.   

There is no way of calculating how big this category is and it would be a mistake to assume that it is homogenous in terms of values and priorities.  

But the indications are that voters aged under 35 years of age amongst which according to MaltaToday’s last survey 44% are intent on not voting, and voters aged between 36 and 50 where abstention is now at 45%, could be fertile grounds for this broad sentiment. 

Non-voters include an anonymous and hard to decipher mass of disenchanted or apathetic voters who either resent both parties or are simply disinterested and have switched off due to electoral fatigue (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Non-voters include an anonymous and hard to decipher mass of disenchanted or apathetic voters who either resent both parties or are simply disinterested and have switched off due to electoral fatigue (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Other categories prone to this sentiment could be post-secondary educated voters amongst which 33% will not vote and tertiary educated voters (31%). 

Significantly these categories also register the highest support for third parties, whose support rises to 8% among under 35-year-olds and to 7% among the tertiary educated. 

It remains to be seen whether third parties and independents will gain further traction in what should be their natural habitat.   

But so far none of the independent or third-party candidates have gained traction in an over-crowded field. This could change with increased exposure in the campaign. 

But there is also the possibility of apathetic voters being ‘awakened’ from their slumber if the Prime Minister crosses a red line. This could drive them to vote for a ‘lesser evil’. Even voters who consider the PN unprepared to govern the country may be tempted to punish Labour and they can do so in the comfort that they won’t be risking a change in the country’s government. 

Moreover, Roberta Metsola, whose stature is enhanced by her stint as EU parliament president is in an ideal place to capture this sentiment. 

EP President Roberta Metsola (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
EP President Roberta Metsola (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

And while some of these voters may have become immune to corruption allegations involving the same protagonists first exposed in the Panama Papers, the confirmation of these ‘allegations’ in a magisterial inquiry could change their outlook. 

This explains why Labour has every interest in sowing doubts on the impartiality of the inquiry by lashing out at its suspicious timing. This remains the strongest argument in Abela’s arsenal.    

The demotivated Nationalist voter 

Another category of non-voters is a minority of PN voters who still show no inclination of going back to their party. The percentage of 2022 PN voters intent on not voting dropped from 23% in February to 13.5% in March and remained stable at 14.6% in the last survey published on 5 May. 

These do not include PN voters who had already abstained in the 2022 general election. The latest survey shows that 77% of abstainers in the 2022 election also intend to abstain in the mid terms with both PN and PL recovering 9% of these voters. 

PN leader Bernard Grech (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
PN leader Bernard Grech (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

This is bad news for the PN considering that the party had lost more to abstention than Labour in 2022. 

This abstention could simply reflect fatigue or demoralisation after so many losses. But it could also reflect long standing factional divides in the party. While over the past year Grech has worked in tandem with Adrian Delia who led the legal battle to revoke the hospitals deal, there are also indications that at grass roots level these wounds have not healed completely. 

This explains why on Monday Abela tried to deflect criticism by rhetorically asking Delia about the ‘establishment’ which removed him from party leader, provoking a sharp response from the former PN leader that Abela is the establishment. 

The disgruntled Labour voter 

But the category whose change of moods is having the greatest impact on polls is composed of former PL voters intent on abstaining. 

This may include some disgruntled by Labour policies and governance and other categories with a variety of personal grievances, which the party may be addressing at a micro level.   

It could also include voters who harbour nostalgia for the ‘best of times’ under Joseph Muscat. 

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The existence of the latter category of Labour voters is confirmed by the drop in abstention in March when Joseph Muscat was actively entertaining the prospect of standing as a candidate and the increase in abstention in the last two weeks of April when this hope was fading away.    

A timeline of surveys shows that within the cohort of 2022 Labour voters abstention decreased from 34.2% in February to 14% in March only to increase again to 23% in the latest survey.    

But even here it would be a mistake to assume that all former Labourites support the former leader. 

In fact, a survey in March showed that 40% of non-voters did not want Muscat to stand as a candidate while only 24% agreed.  Moreover, this category probably also includes apathetic Labour voters who consider MEP elections a waste of time. 

The good news for Labour is that this category of Labour voters intent on not voting in the mid-terms is mobile and prone to changing its mind. In fact, it is the only category which so far has a bearing on the expected result. 

If they stay at home, Labour will lose the super majority. If they vote en-masse, the party would be on track for another spectacular victory. 

The bad news for Robert Abela is that Joseph Muscat now has him by the balls. Muscat has the power to scupper his majority on the eve of this crucial electoral test. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Prime Minister Robert Abela (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

In his Facebook post on Monday when it became clear that he will be charged, Muscat threatened those who “looked the other way instead of fixing” the injustice he claims to be suffering. It could be interpreted as a veiled reference to the Prime Minister and if so, it would have sent shivers down Abela’s spine. 

But to keep Muscat on board until 8 June, Abela also risks pissing off other categories of presently dormant non-voters including some Labour voters who resent Muscat’s legacy of privatisations, from which, in this case, the country gained absolutely nothing. 

Walking a tight rope 

In short, Robert Abela needs to roar like a lion to get the Labour vote out without scaring other categories of non-voters particularly middle of the road voters disgusted by the hospitals scandal. 

Similarly, Bernard Grech needs to be careful not to polarise the election to the extent of contributing to a retrenchment of Labour voters. 

These dynamics are clearly at play in the current controversy on the timing of the magisterial inquiry.    

This explains Abela's behaviour in the past days which first saw him lashing out at the magistrate’s timing as ‘political terrorism’ and subsequently downplaying this comment while redirecting his anger at an abstract ‘establishment’. In the psyche of Labour voters, the ‘establishment’ constantly rigs the game against the party they support. This enables Abela to play the under-dog card. 

Abela has also been careful to attack the timing of the inquiry whose conclusions were presented on the day the Electoral Commission started accepting nominations, rather than embark on an unconditional defence of his predecessor. But this could change if the inquiry is published before the election. 

The Attorney General did not have much choice but to file criminal charges, but the stark reality is that Muscat is being arraigned on Abela’s watch.     

Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg
Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg

This is why Abela’s balancing act is now severely tested. While the pain and anger felt among Muscat supporters could increase turn out among Labour voters, it risks unleashing forces which are beyond Abela’s control. Moreover, some Muscat supporters may blame Abela for abandoning their beloved leader. 

For in his balancing act between so many conflicting pressures, Robert Abela is showing signs of losing his focus with the Opposition taking the initiative for the first time since Abela’s equally convoluted U-turn on the Jean Paul Sofia inquiry.   

Even the PL’s electoral slogan, ‘Is-Sahha lill-Maltin', has been outwitted by the Opposition, which is finally showing some signs of vitality. Will this be enough to narrow the gap? 

Much depends on the ability of the PN to resist its usual temptation to go overboard by raising the stakes and thus looking smug, power hungry and vindictive. 

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

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.

More in Ewropej 2024