[ANALYSIS] The numbers say the PN is in decline. Here are four reasons why

The PN’s numbers have shrunk, but it’s still a coalition of social liberals and conservatives, upper middle and working-class, cosmopolitans and tribalisms, and reformist voters. Bernard Grech only needs to find the glue that keeps them together…

The PN’s numbers have shrunk, but it’s still a coalition of social liberals and conservatives, upper middle and working-class, cosmopolitans and tribalisms, and reformist voters
The PN’s numbers have shrunk, but it’s still a coalition of social liberals and conservatives, upper middle and working-class, cosmopolitans and tribalisms, and reformist voters

Last Sunday’s survey showed PN leader Bernard Grech losing 10 points in his trust rating, amid an 8-point increase in respondents who trust neither leader and a 2-point increase in respondents who trust Robert Abela.

The perception of disunity fuelled by the spat between Jason Azzopardi and Adrian Delia may have contributed to the PN’s poor results, especially among news junkies.

But normally it takes time for perceptions rooted in news events to seep in and change voting patterns.

A more realistic reading suggests the pandemic was the major factor behind Grech’s rise and Abela’s decline between October and March, especially so when government seemed to have lost control of rising numbers; but also the key to a poll recovery thanks to a robust vaccination programme and a well managed lockdown.

Pyrrhic victory for Delia and Grech’s faux pas: the PN’s weaknesses exposed

This reading suggests that while Grech’s leadership profile was strengthened during the pandemic, underlying structural problems caught up with him the moment the pandemic started receding.

Here are 4 major hurdles, which are obstructing Grech in posing a challenge to Labour’s dominance.

1. The PN keeps losing votes to Labour from its already restricted 2017 vote base

Logic suggests that for the PN the only way is up and that those who voted for the party in 2017 can be taken for granted. And yet this is not the case. MaltaToday surveys not only show that Grech has failed in stopping the internal haemorrhage but also that the percentage of PN voters who voted for Simon Busuttil’s party in 2017 and are now opting for Abela’s party is actually increasing: from below 2 percent in October to nearly 7 per cent now.

And while the perception of disunity in the PN may be a factor which turns off these voters, the actual shift to Labour suggests that these voters are not simply repulsed by the PN but also like what they see in Labour. Otherwise these voters would say they will be abstaining.

One factor is that so far the PN has not presented itself as a credible alternative government. The response to the pandemic since March and the arraignment of Keith Schembri and other protagonists of Panamagate may also have boosted Abela’s popularity in this category of ‘pale blue’ voters.  Some of these voters may also feel an affinity with Labour’s economic policies, which are not so dissimilar from those of the PN when in government.

2. A tenth of Labour voters in 2017 would not vote now. Disgruntled Labour voters are more intent on abstaining than on switching sides

Although Abela recovered lost ground in the October-March surveys, he still faces disgruntlement among a category of PL voters.

Had these voters shifted their allegiance to the PN, Abela would be in trouble. But as things stand these voters are not going anywhere and remain parked among abstainers, possibly returning back to Labour as soon as the drums of the electoral campaign start being beaten.

Yet the fact that this segment remained consistent over the past months suggests that Labour may be facing a disconnection with voters who may be disgruntled for a wide variety of reasons ranging from corruption and over development to bread and butter issues.

These losses are partly compensated for by new voters crossing over from the PN. Ironically, while the PN remains off-limits for Labour’s own crop of disgruntled voters, Labour remains an option for those drifting towards it from the PN. 

The PN can’t narrow the gap if it does not stop its own internal bleeding while at the same time attracting disgruntlement from the other side. It is also probable that this bracket includes both traditional Labour voters and floaters who trusted Labour in 2013 and are now having second thoughts. Yet the PN so far fails to make significant inroads.

In fact in the last survey only 1.7% of PL voters in 2017 intended to vote PN. This makes a Labour victory of the same scale as 2017 and 2013 more likely despite a probable increase in abstention.

3. Bernard Grech has an abysmal trust rating among younger voters

In this survey Grech registers his lowest-ever trust rating among the 16-35 bracket, a category which also includes the highest percentage of voters who trust neither leader (24%) but where Abela is trusted by 49% compared to just 14% who trust Grech. This suggests the PN is still unable to capture the imagination of younger voters, or even that younger voters increasingly see the PN as an irrelevance. 

It could also mean that a significant proportion of young voters are in tune with the materialistic, individualistic and socially liberal values espoused by labour. 

Moreover no third party has stepped in to fill the gap. It remains curious how despite the scale of recent corruption scandals, support for the establishment in this category remains strong. Significantly, not voting is increasingly becoming a more feasible option for an increasing segment of the youth vote than voting for the opposition of a third party.

The apathy of young voters could be one major factor swelling the ranks of non-voters to the extent that while 17% intend voting for the PN, 16% intend not voting. Even more worrying for the PN is that Grech has seen his trust in this category slip from 32% in January to 14% now.

4. The survey shows the first signs disgruntlement among tertiary-educated voters, the same category which warmed up to Grech after rejecting Delia

One of the greatest hurdles faced by Adrian Delia was his failure to communicate with tertiary-educated voters who shunned him. Grech initiated his trajectory by winning higher levels of trust among this category, peaking at 42% in February at the peak of the second wave of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Grech’s peak in February coincided with a drop of those who trust neither leader.

But Grech’s trust rating among this category has now slipped to 28% compared to Abela’s 36%. Curiously while in this category while the PN leads the PL by 3 points, Abela leads Grech by 8 points. 

This suggests that a segment of tertiary-educated PN voters would still vote for their party despite their lack of trust in Grech. This may reflect criticism levelled on Grech for not being vocal enough on corruption issues and could also reflect disgruntlement with the party’s approach to other issues ranging from construction and hunting to the sale of passports. 

Ultimately this shows how complicated the PN’s balancing act between different categories of its own voters has become. And while upping the tempo on corruption may galvanise one category of voters, Labour still manages to spin criticism even from international institutions like the EU parliament as being “anti national”.

So while the PN’s total numbers have shrunk, the party still remains a coalition of social liberals, conservatives, upper middle-class voters, working class voters, cosmopolitans, tribalists and reformists.

Rediscovering the glue, which keeps such a disparate coalition together, remains an elusive task for Grech.