General election: Abela keeps PN on their toes but looks to 2022

A 2021 election seems extremely unlikely after Robert Abela announced that the budget will be presented on 11 October. So why has he not ruled out the possibility entirely?

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

The Nationalist Party organ il-Mument claimed last Sunday that Robert Abela is calling an election for either the 13th or 27th November – a clear message for activists to get ready for the fight.

Resigned for an impending Labour landslide, the PN needs to oil its machine, keep up the political heat and galvanise an apathetic pale-blue vote. But the imminence of an election can also boost the PN polls, now that it is no longer a distant protect. The coming months must see the PN make inroads among former voters still undecided or even intent on not voting.

While some in Labour believe a November election could be Abela’s best strategy, on Monday the prime minister said he will oversee the implementation of Budget 2022. Effectively that pours cold water for any November election, since no budget implementation Bill would have been passed by that time.

Still, Abela refused to rule out a 2021 election when pressed on the matter. The latest he can call it will be September 2022, but the PM has absolute discretion on the date.

The Budget will be presented to the House on 11 October, and debates and final approval could take at least two weeks. With the minimum period between the announcement of an election and voting day being 33 days, any such election in 2021 would then have to be held in the first weekend of December.

The last time an election was called in December was in 1981, when Labour won a majority of seats despite losing its majority of votes.

But it is common wisdom that an election so late in the year disrupts the Christmas shopping period (already in full swing throughout end-November), something the government will not be too keen to do after two years of COVID-19 disruptions that the retail sector has had to endure.

Abela does not rule out the unlikely prospect however, for example by holding the Budget much later in October: instead he keeps the PN guessing, forcing it into premature election mode, already taxing on its limited resources. He wants their arsenal depleted before the real campaign starts.

Abela certainly wants to dispel the idea that Labour had been unable to complete an entire legislative term, elusive since 1987. His father George fell out with Alfred Sant and resigned as deputy leader after having strongly advised him against an early election in 1998. But Abela’s mandate was inherited from Joseph Muscat, whose disgraced exit paved the way for the “continuity candidate”, Abela himself.

Abela knows however that only an election can dispel the impression that he is in debt to Muscat.

But not calling an election before, Abela does not feed uncertainty into his first Budget, delivered by trusted finance minister Clyde Caruana and not obscured by the pandemic. Nobody can accuse Abela of hiding the state of the country’s finances from the electorate, but the Budget still gives Labour the power of incumbency to address disgruntled pockets of voters.

Where does this leave Abela in the battle for the soul of Labour? A landslide victory now will strengthen his hand in the face of Muscat loyalists, but judicial developments in the next months will still weaken the former Labour leader’s influence.

Abela knows that even with its poll advantage, Labour is losing its sheen. Even with his higher trust rating over Bernard Grech, Labour is winning by default. The moment voters will start seeing a viable alternative, Abela’s days may be numbered.

Prolonging the election date might give the PN and third parties more time to consolidate, exploiting the rifts inside Labour’s big tent, specifically discontent at the sway held by big business.

But Abela thinks he the PN will just be in a stretched-out campaigning mode, distracting it from its own, much-needed reforms to become a credible alternative. It’s a risk that is based on the premise that the campaign itself will not change voting intentions, as has happened in Germany, whose opposition Social Democrats (SDP) resurged 10 points in the polls after years being left behind.

In Malta, that’s always an extremely unlikely prospect. But any eleventh-hour erosion of support will thwart Abela’s bid to outdo his predecessor in terms of winning big.

READ ALSO: MaltaToday Survey | PN inroads still no match for Abela trust factor