Third party vote: Strong but not enough to break the ceiling

Voters had an assorted choice of independent and third-party candidates to choose from and yet, despite a brave showing by Arnold Cassola the result was not strong enough to break the PN-PL duopoly. James Debono assesses the third party vote

The MEP election gave voters an assorted choice of independent and third party candidates
The MEP election gave voters an assorted choice of independent and third party candidates

More than a tenth of voters in MEP elections opted for an assortment of independent candidates and third parties, denying an absolute majority to the two dominant parties.

Compared to 2019 the third-party vote has increased from 20,334 votes (7.8%) to 33,498 votes (12.7%)

Arnold Cassola also emerged as the clear front runner in the third-party camp with the support of nearly 13,000 voters, a result which placed him in third place in terms of first count votes but which was not enough to break the ceiling to get elected in the final count. 

This was a significant improvement for Cassola over 2019 when he first contested as an independent garnering 2,127 votes. But the result was still a far cry from the 23,000 he garnered as an AD candidate in 2004 in a less crowded third party field one year after the EU membership referendum in which his party was a protagonist.

It remains to be seen whether Cassola’s strong showing will serve as a catalyst for the creation of a new effective third party or whether his failure to get elected would further demoralise voters whose dream was shattered by the unbreakable block vote in both major parties when it comes to vote transfers. Despite failing to break the ceiling, Cassola managed to increase his vote to 22,941 before being eliminated on the 34th count.

And despite not inheriting enough votes to get elected, Cassola has left a definitive mark in these elections, thanks to a slick campaign which projected him as a competent and inspiring politician who appeals to middle of the road voters, greens and progressives. Cassola’s ability to appeal to a broad church may be one of the reasons behind his success.

From socialist rebel to conservative voice

The other surprise of this election was Conrad Borg Manche who on his own garnered 5,936 votes and has nearly the same level of support as Norman Lowell.

Manche, a former Labour mayor of Gzira, had shot to fame first by teaming up with Graffitti to reclaim the coastline of Manoel island for bathers and then by standing up against the central government’s attempt to transfer the public ownership of garden space for the development of a fuel station. In this way he may well have attracted Labour voters disgusted by their party’s subservience to the business lobby.

But his  regressive  stance on various social issues, which ultimately pushed him to declare allegiance to the European Conservative and Reformist grouping, could have also endeared him to a segment of traditional conservative voters including Labour voters who never wholly accepted Labour’s progressive platform.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Manche owes his support to his well-known environmental militancy and popularity in Gzira or to his conservative positions with which most people became acquainted during the past few weeks of the campaign.

Eggs on their face

With the exception of Manche, MEP elections turned out to be a big disappointment for other conservative candidates, including conspiracy theorists like Simon Mercieca (232 votes) and the Ivan Grech Mintoff (220 votes) whose egg throwing stunts and odd cocktail of anti LGBTIQ  and pro neutrality agenda failed to pay off.

It was an equally disappointing night for Edwin Vassallo, a former PN junior minister and Mosta mayor best known for being the only MP to vote against marriage equality in 2017. Vassallo's solo run in the MEP election saw him obtain 717 votes.  

One reason for this could be that traditionalist voters are also less inclined to vote for a third party. This also explains why Norman Lowell, a self-avowed racialist and white supremacist who appeals to anti-establishment voters, remains the most popular right wing candidate.

However, this time around Lowell saw his vote shrink from a record 8,238 votes in 2019 to 6,816 votes. The 2024 result is just a bit higher than the 6,761 votes he garnered in 2014. It is the first time Lowell has experienced a decrease in votes ever since contesting the first MEP election in 2004.

This year, despite presenting himself as some sort of prophet who predicted the influx of migrants, Lowell failed to capitalise on public concern over foreign workers. This may be an indication that the appeal of Lowell’s bizarre extremism is limited to a small segment of the population. This raises the question whether Lowell’s extremism is actually an impediment for the growth of a more mainstream right wing party.

Minus 3,637 for AD+PD

On the left side of the spectrum, it was another disappointing night for AD+PD whose four candidates collectively garnered 3,505 votes. This represents 3,637 less than the total sum of AD and PD in 2019 when the parties ran separately. The party was eclipsed by Cassola’s stature and ability to keep the dream of a third party breakthrough alive.  

In the past, the greens have shown a remarkable ability to ignore negative results and press ahead from one disappointment to the next but some serious thinking is now due on the future of a party whose brand may be well past its expiry date. Much will depend on whether the party will manage to elect any councillors in local elections held concurrently with the MEP election. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall for a tired and uninspiring Green Party.

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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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