Three take-aways from Monday's political rallies

ANALYSIS | Both the Labour and Nationalist parties held rallies on Monday, this is what MaltaToday journalists present at the event took away from them

Left to right: Prime Minister Robert Abela and PN leader Bernard Grech
Left to right: Prime Minister Robert Abela and PN leader Bernard Grech

ROBERT ABELA | Continuity, pretty green and vague reform

The Labour Party closed an extraordinary general conference on Monday with a rally addressed by Robert Abela. Nicole Meilak was present for the event. This is what she took away from it.

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

1. Friend to all: The continuity candidate

Joseph Muscat prided himself in being a moderate social democrat that stood for the little guy while facilitating business and investment.

Muscatonomics centred not on class but on aspiration, using eager synergy between government and business to provide people the springboard for upward social mobility.

Robert Abela drew on this exact sentiment during his speech on Monday, labelling himself a European social democrat at the helm of a liberal and progressive party that championed civil rights.

He said that the party’s focus should always be on the “little guy” who is falling behind as society moves forward. He spoke on the importance of giving employers a level playing field so that employees can climb the corporate ladder, but his rhetoric on the importance of the worker movement to the party failed to go beyond the usual ‘saħħa lill-ħaddiem’ mantra.

Abela is not only carrying Muscat’s legacy but also the success Labour has had in its Third Way approach to politics. This approach has allowed the post-2013 Labour Party to have its cake and eat it, by cosying up to business lobbies while maintaining its image as a social justice party for the people.

Abela says he believes in the worker, but doesn’t stop to acknowledge that the interests of the worker class often stand diametrically opposed to the interests of business lobbies. Both Muscat and Abela have successfully walked the tightrope to keep both sides satisfied, but neither have been forced to choose between the two classes.

A strong, organised labour movement that doesn’t brand itself Labour nor Nationalist could potentially pose an existential threat to the Labour Party. An organised worker force that stands up for higher wages or better working conditions, at the expense of their employers, could force the Labour government into a situation where compromise is impossible.

This would be the ultimate litmus test for any centre-left Labour Party across the world – having to choose between the business lobby it cosies up to, or the worker class that it says it represents.

But that threat is nowhere to be seen and Abela will continue walking that tightrope for more time to come despite the economic challenges created by the pandemic and Malta’s greylisting.

2. Green redemption: Pretty as she goes

After almost two legislatures dominated by environmental degradation, the Labour Party is looking for redemption. On Monday, Abela posited the environment and sustainability at the centre of his speech, and insisted the Labour government will work on lowering emissions through business incentives, while speaking heavily on the need to make Malta “prettier”.

The greening of public spaces is easy and non-controversial. On the other hand, carbon neutrality is a pledge that has been largely forced upon us due to EU and UN commitments. However, Abela does well by emphasising the social impact of carbon neutrality, and more importantly, stating clearly that the impact will be accounted for.

In his speech, he suggested that government will tackle carbon neutrality through business incentives, nudging them towards cleaner and more energy-efficient operations. He also emphasised on the need to go electric with private vehicles, but said government will help in this transition.

While commendable, these are the easier environmental subjects, and Abela knows what he’s doing by framing the issue around green spaces and carbon neutrality. The problem in Malta comes with the built environment, which is largely dictated by the controversial 2006 local plans.

The rally closed an extraordinary general conference of the Labour Party
The rally closed an extraordinary general conference of the Labour Party

Land use has always been Malta’s biggest issue, and small size means capital projects often have to be built in somewhat close proximity to residential areas.

Everyone’s a stakeholder when it comes to land, meaning that land use requires tight consensus to ensure that necessary developments do not impinge on the collective good. Arguably, this cannot be done without re-evaluating the local plans, and both government and the Opposition have shown little to no determination in this respect.

The planning process is Malta’s primary environmental issue, and more power ought to be given to local councils in determining applications in urban areas to help decentralise the process.

But going down this road is politically tricky and puts the major parties in a potential conflict with developers and the construction industry. Neither are in the mood to upset the applecart so close to an election.

3. Electoral reform: A vague commitment

Robert Abela stated clearly that Malta needs a serious discussion on electoral reform, so that local electoral laws can “better reflect the society we live in”.

Electoral reform has long been talked about, but never discussed. Every experience with electoral reform over the past two decades starts by trying to change the system as a whole, but invariably ends up with constitutional amendments that simply patch up whatever came before it.

Not to mention that the amendments tend be implemented within the sole interests of the two major parties.

Calling for electoral laws that better reflect society is a vague notion that can either mean a radical overhaul to encourage a multi-party system in parliament or a cosmetic adjustment. The recent gender quota mechanism will likely prove to be a net benefit to the way parliament works after the next election, but it is no radical change to the system as a whole.

In fact, electoral reform doesn’t get more superficial than the gender quota mechanism. The power dynamics still lie in favour of the PL-PN duopoly, and only goes so far as to change the cosmetic make-up of parliament.

The major issues in electoral reform boil down to proportionality between seats in parliament vis-a-vis valid votes cast, and the district-based quota system that limits representation to candidates that secure 16.6% of the vote in their district.

The first issue stemmed from the 1981 election when the Malta Labour Party won a majority of seats in parliament, but the Nationalist Party gained the majority of votes. A subsequent amendment then stated that whoever gains the absolute majority of votes, but not seats, will have the right to govern.

But this amendment didn’t cater for relative majorities, a prospect that became more plausible after the 1992 election when the newly-formed Alternattiva Demokratika had secured over 4,000 votes. In 1996, a constitutional amendment established that if a political party with the largest number of votes did not obtain the largest number of seats, then it will have its seat total increased until a one-seat majority is attained.

A 2007 revision sought to make the system more proportional, whereby the number of seats won by a party can increase to reflect better its share of first preference votes.

The pitfall is that all amendments to date have been based on the assumption that two parties are elected to parliament, or where multiple parties are elected, one party is able to attain an absolute majority.

There is yet to be a wholesome reform of Malta’s electoral system that goes beyond piecemeal changes. The question is whether Abela will adopt the more cosmetic gender-quota-style amendments that change the appearance of parliament, or force ahead with a comprehensive reform that will make it easier for smaller parties to make it to parliament.


BERNARD GRECH | The tightrope, a pledge and call to arms

The Nationalist Party’s mass gathering on the Granaries in Floriana was Bernard Grech’s first since becoming leader last year. Kurt Sansone was there to listen to his speech. These are the three things that tickled his fancy.

PN leader Bernard Grech
PN leader Bernard Grech

1. Rich man vs poor man: A tightrope walk

Bernard Grech chose to walk a political tightrope when he pitted his ordinary upbringing with the privileged lifestyle of Robert Abela.

The ‘rich man vs poor man’ argument may have hit home with some, who are feeling the pinch of a higher cost of living and reduced working conditions as a result of the COVID pandemic. But it also risks opening a Pandora’s Box that could see Grech having to fend off accusations that he is pandering to the politics of envy.

Grech started off Monday’s speech recounting how he met his wife, going on to get married and buying a flat in Birkirkara. The couple later bought a house in Mosta and did it up. The story was intended to portray the PN leader as an ordinary person whose personal and family achievements were obtained by sheer hard work.

But he also took it one further and contrasted his own humble beginnings with Robert Abela’s relatively comfortable upbringing, even taking a dig at his father’s presidency in the process.

“I understand you because in my life I suffered and worked hard for my achievements. Like you I neither took direct orders nor services from the president’s palace. Like you I dirtied my hands with work not bribery,” Grech told supporters.

And on a more personal level, Grech accused Abela of being a detached rich man unable to understand the struggles of ordinary folk and who darts off to Sicily in his yacht at a time of crisis.

The intended strategy is to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and ordinary people who do not own boats and whose wage only just takes them to the end of the month. It is clear that Grech has been advised to try and bridge the wide gap in trust between him and Abela.

One way of doing so is to portray Abela as aloof from the troubles of ordinary people and emphasising Grech’s understanding of day-to-day problems.

By using this strategy, Grech may be trying to emulate the post-2008 Labour campaign against the €500 salary increase taken by then prime minister Lawrence Gonzi’s Cabinet. But there is a crucial difference between then and now.

At the time, the ministers’ salary increase contrasted with the higher utility bills families had to pay and the loss of income from places of work that felt the pinch of the international economic crunch. Playing the envy card then worked.

But it is doubtful whether today’s circumstances are comparable. Despite the pressure on incomes created by the pandemic and the rising cost of living eroding disposable income, the climate is still nowhere near that in the 2008-2013 interlude. More importantly, government has a budget coming up that could address any shortfalls.

Grech’s strategy may work with some but it could backfire the moment someone points out the first PN candidate or MP who owns a boat and leads a life of relative luxury.

By ‘outing’ Abela’s rich lifestyle and privileged background, Grech is contradicting the PN’s own mantra of giving people the opportunity to dream, make money and lead a comfortable life.

Grech will need to flash out better why he chose to go down this path and whether his problem is Abela’s perceived aloofness, or all those like him who are rich, own boats or live in penthouses.

2. ‘You will not lose your job’: Allaying fear

A concern voiced recently by employer bodies has been that of an extraordinary increase in public sector employment in the run-up to the election. In some economic sectors, companies are even facing an exodus of workers, they warned.

Grech picked on this concern on Monday as he lambasted government for trying to buy votes by dishing out government jobs.

However, conscious of the fear such a statement may instil in those who have obtained a government job, Grech did not stop there. He immediately dispelled the idea that to redress this situation a new Nationalist government will resort to layoffs from the public sector.

The PN returned to its traditional Independence Day eve meeting on the Floriana Granaries
The PN returned to its traditional Independence Day eve meeting on the Floriana Granaries

He promised that these people will not lose their job but a PN government will change direction to ensure the private sector is not negatively impacted by an exodus of workers.

Grech’s move was reminiscent of a similar pledge made by then Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami before the 1987 election.

At the time, the Labour administration resorted to employing thousands of people with the public sector, a move criticised by the PN. But in a TV debate with then prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici on the eve of the 1987 election, Fenech Adami moved to allay fears that an incoming PN government would kick public sector employees out of their jobs.

Fenech Adami had told people to take any promotions or job offers made to them by the government of the day, pledging that none will be taken away if the PN was elected to power.

But he also reminded them that in the polling booth they would be alone and urged them to do what was right for the country.

Grech’s pledge may not go down well with employer bodies but is crucial from an electoral point of view since it allays fears, especially when the party is still trying to convince voters to trust it.

3. ‘Hold your heads up high’: Proud to be PN

The narrative surrounding the Nationalist Party has been largely dictated by its political rival over the past decade. Hammered at the polls and struggling to find a raison d’etre, the PN has allowed the Labour Party to depict it as a ‘negative party’ focussed solely on corruption and oblivious to bread and butter issues.

This narrative was further cemented by the factional infighting that left the PN wounded and unable to present a coherent force.

The massive defeats the PN suffered in two general elections and three European Parliament elections left many within the party disillusioned and with a defeatist attitude. And with the PL miles ahead in the polls, many in the PN are convinced the party will lose the next election as well.

This sense of doom does not bode well a few months before a general election and Bernard Grech knows this well. On Monday, he tried to chip away at this defeatist attitude by asking supporters to cherish the party’s past achievements.

He insisted that the party must humbly apologise for the mistakes it did as he reiterated an apology to the LGBTIQ community.

But he insisted that for every mistake the PN made it had many more achievements to boast about.

He urged supporters to hold their heads up high and be proud of their party. His pitch was a page from the Joseph Muscat playbook, who upon becoming leader in 2008 apologised for the violence of the 1980s but insisted on recalling the social achievements of the Mintoff administrations in the 1970s.

Judging from the crowd present on Monday, enthusiasm among PN supporters is still lacking, even though new faces have started appearing among the rank and file.

It will take much more effort and time for Grech to energise his base but it is something he has to do if the PN is to stand a chance in the election.