Third party lovers: seven hurdles for the newly-wedded AD/PD party

Alternattiva Demokratika and the Partit Demokratiku have taken their vows. But will the sum of two parties past their prime be greater than that of the parts? asks JAMES DEBONO

Lawfully-wedded third parties
Lawfully-wedded third parties

Alternattiva Demokratika has been part of the Maltese political landscape for the past three decades during which it left its mark by acting as a trailblazer for reforms, which in a number of cases were later absorbed in the agenda of the two major parties.

The Partit Demokratiku managed to break new ground by giving Malta a taste of coalition politics, electing former Labour MPs turned independent Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia to parliament in a pre-election deal with the PN, only to be orphaned by the Farrugias themselves after the party’s poor performance in MEP elections last year.

Bereft of any MPs, MEPs and even local councillors, the two parties have decided to merge and fight together. But what obstacles do they face?

Members of the new AD/PD party
Members of the new AD/PD party

1. The sum of two spent forces does not add up to something bigger

AD can boast of having been on the right side of history in both the divorce and the EU referenda, and has spearheaded most major reforms in the past three decades not just on environmental issues but also in civil liberties (being the first to have proposed equal marriage and divorce) and institutional reforms (being the first to propose whistleblower, revolving doors and lobbying regulations).

But apart from a notable 9% in Malta’s first MEP elections in 2004 and some isolated successes at local level, AD has underperformed in all other electoral appointments. In 2019 AD lost their last, long-time local councillor on the Attard council.

The PD, which for a time captured the anger against Labour’s industrial-scale corruption, did manage to elect two MPs in the 2017 election but only on the back of a losing coalition with the PN. After being completely associated with the Farrugia power couple, whose antics and moral conservatism alienated a significant number of potential voters, the party lost steam.

The merger taking place now is one between two parties who are past their heyday. But despite their precarious existence they remain jealous of their identity to the extent that the party’s new name is AD/PD, thus refusing to vacate the space for something fresh and new. Prhaps reminding people of the past may not be the best way to attract new support. Instead the two parties could have been more courageous, ditching their history in favour of something with a brand new identity, logo and leaders.

2. People won’t renounce their say in determining which party should be in government

Small parties constantly blame the unfairness of the electoral system, which limits their success. But the electoral system does give voters one major power: that of determining which of the two big parties governs the country. This is because of amendments to the Constitution which ensure that if two parties are elected to parliament, the party with the largest number of first preference votes is elected to government. In this way, anyone voting for a smaller third party is renouncing a say in determining who is in government.

Therefore, third parties only appeal to a restricted number of voters who are willing to renounce having a say in the matter.

Third parties have three ways of doing away with this obstacle. The most obvious and difficult option would be that of presenting themselves as contenders for government. But this contrasts with the image of pesky rebels projected by both PD and AD. Moreover, with polls showing both parties in low single digits any such pretentions would look surreal.

The second solution would be to repeat the PD’s 2017 feat by riding on the back of a pre-electoral coalition. But it may well be the case that the behaviour of the Farrugias after the 2017 elections, and the resentment in the PN itself for losing two seats to the PD, may well have poisoned the well.

The third solution would be that of focusing on the election of an MP from one district, banking on vote transfers from other parties. But even here, Malta lacks a vote transfer culture, unlike Ireland, which has the same electoral system but elects many parties to parliament.

3. Not voting is an alternative to voting for small ineffective parties

Surveys show a substantial number of voters, particularly more than one-fourth of tertiary-educated voters intend on not voting. In the absence of a third party which captures their imagination, voters may be keener to register their protest by not voting. But if a new party does capture their imagination it may be a different ball game for voters who distrust both parties equally. Still, one key factor in this is whether the PN will have a new leader who is more trusted by these voters than Delia. In that case, third parties may face a more uphill battle than if Delia remains PN leader. But a new PN leader in a more continental frame of mind may be more inclined for a coalition, but only if this would make a difference for the PN’s prospects.

4. If the PN changes, the next election will be about clipping Labour’s wings

AD lost more than half of its 2013 vote in the 2017 general election for the sheer reason that many of its voters ended up voting for the Forza Nazzjonali coalition in a failed bid to topple the Muscat government. If Delia is replaced by a more trustworthy PN leader, it would be inevitable for many potential third-party voters to start seeing the next election as the last opportunity to clip Labour’s wings by narrowing the gap, thus reinvigorating the parliamentary opposition. In this scenario, in the absence of a coalition with the PN, the AD/PD would risk irrelevance. But the cost of this would be alienating that segment of third-party voters who distrust the PN completely. This is bound to be another catch-22 for the new party.

5. Progressive third parties have failed to tap the Labour vote

The reality is that socially liberal third parties in Malta tend to be over-dependent on disillusion among PN voters. The more solid Labour vote has so far proved to be a harder nut to crack for green and liberal third parties. In MEP elections the far-right has been a far greater threat to Labour. One reason for this is that third parties mostly appeal to educated middle-class voters who traditionally have been more inclined to vote PN. Still, Labour’s vote may be less homogenous than before and cracks may start to emerge between different categories of Labour voters, especially amongst liberals who migrated to Labour in 2013. Labour’s move to the right which has been sustained under Robert Abela, should also open up a new constituency of socialist voters for the new party.

But to appeal for this segment the new party has to become more populist in proposing wide-ranging social reforms. To reach out to these voters the new party may also have to keep its distance from the PN. With opinion polls showing Labour retaining the vast majority of its 2017 voters, it remains doubtful whether such a strategy makes any sense.

6. Local councils are an opportunity… but independents may fill that void

In the past AD was a fixture in local councils in Attard and Sliema. The loss of representation at local level was a major blow for the party. The PD tried to contest a number of localities, including Sliema, but failed to get elected. But by focusing on local level, the new party may gain the trust of voters. But even here, independent candidates rooted in the community may be perceived to be more fitting for the role than little known candidates contesting under a third party banner.

Moreover people who are already rooted in their community may consider the chances of a successful run at local level higher under the independent label. The successful run of Steve Zammit Lupi in the Zebbug council and his ability to work with councillors from both parties may well set an example for candidates in other localities. Independent candidates are not perceived as a threat by voters of other parties who will therefore be more likely to transfer their vote to an independent than to someone contesting with a smaller party.

Still, third parties may choose to support civic lists composed of independent candidates, showing good will and long-term strategic thinking. In the long term, trusted independents at local level may discover that change at national level is indispensable for improving the quality of life of citizens. But their success at local level may also encourage independent candidacies at national level, like that of Arnold Cassola in the 2019 MEP election.

7. Civil society has more power than weak third parties

AD was founded at a time when civil society was far less vibrant than today. In fact AD which owes its origins to activists in human rights and environmental NGOs, but kept an identity of an NGO to keep the other parties under pressure by the sheer threat of taking away votes from them.

However, activists in groups like Graffitti may feel that it is more effective in building coalitions in communities threatened by over-development, and cooperating with politicians on both sides of the divide. By not joining the electoral fray these groups are more trusted by local communities because they are seen as having no other agenda apart that of safeguarding the environment and the quality of life of residents.

Third parties can still find ways of collaborating with NGOs by coming up with legislative proposals which strengthen civil society. But activist groups may feel empowered to influence the debate within the two big parties rather than joining the fray themselves. Some groups like Repubblika have been particularly influential among Nationalist voters who do not trust Delia, while Graffitti provided a reference point for those on the left who were disgusted by corruption in Labour, especially during the December protests. The new party could replicate what Graffitti did in the streets on a more political level, by giving representation to non-partisans and leftists in a broader movement for change.

Once again third parties can only contribute by reaffirming their role as trailblazers for political reform. But ultimately their ability to lead an insurgency against the broken system depends on the emergence of a new generation of leaders who are able to inspire voters. The question is: what would successful NGO activists and leaders gain by joining a party with few chances of being elected? What the new party can give them is the excitement which comes from the opportunity of being part of a wide movement for radical change. If the new party is able to inspire, it would have already made the most crucial first step.

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