Robert 2022: a repeat of ‘GonziPN’ or ‘Eddie Fiduċja’

The Labour Party appears to be taking a leaf out of the PN playbook by personalising its campaign livery with the slogan ‘Robert 2022’. Kurt Sansone tries to understand the reasons

Election 2022: Labour goes personal
Election 2022: Labour goes personal

Polls in the run-up of the 2008 election were giving the Labour Party a slim victory over the Nationalist Party.

But then PN leader Lawrence Gonzi was miles ahead of his rival Alfred Sant in the trust barometer.

Faced with this dilemma, PN strategists decided to pin their party’s hopes of victory solely on Gonzi’s higher trust rating among the population. The 2008 PN election slogan GonziPN was thus born.

It meant to convey a message of hope urging the electorate to vote for the man they trust most – Lawrence Gonzi.

The campaign worked and the PN went on to win that election by a whisker. It was the first time in decades that the party that was propelled into government did so on the strength of a relative majority and not an absolute one.

Fast forward 14 years and the Labour Party appears to be emulating that rallying call. When we descended on the Granaries at Floriana where Robert Abela held his traditional Sunday speech, we were greeted by never seen before posters: ‘Robert 2022’.

The personalisation of the PL campaign attempts to hook up with its leader’s high trust rating among the electorate.

Whether this will be the running theme for an eventual election campaign still has to be seen but the fact that these posters were rolled out on the day in which Abela announced a 26 March election is a strong indication that the PL will pin its hopes on the leader’s trust rating

Really and truly, ‘pin its hopes’ may be an understatement. Several surveys over the course of five years have been suggesting a clear victory for the PL with the only big question mark being the size of the gap with the PN.

So, it begs the question as to why the PL would adopt a personalised campaign focussed on its leader when there appears to be no urgent reason for this. The circumstances today for the PL government are not what they were in 2008 for the PN government.

1. Putting the Muscat legacy to bed

Robert Abela became prime minister in January 2020 on the back of political turmoil that saw his predecessor Joseph Muscat resign amid suggestions that people in his administration were close to Daphne Caruana Galizia murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.

With his leadership born in such controversial circumstances, Abela has been trying to put distance between himself and the Muscat legacy, which although has a lot of positives is tarnished by the Caruana Galizia murder and its ramifications on bad governance and corruption.

Abela has axed people tainted with scandal, drafted in new faces, enacted bold new laws and tried to craft himself as closer to the downtrodden. Crucially, he has played a very delicate balancing act in keeping Muscat and his controversies at arm’s length, while keeping his grass roots supporters on board. 

Muscat is still loved within the party – his utterances on social media still have a wide audience – since he represents the PL’s victorious streak that started the moment he was elected leader in 2008.

Abela wants to craft his own niche, be seen as a leader in his own right and thus put Muscat’s legacy to bed by securing a comfortable PL victory at the polls of his own.

‘Robert 2022’ is an attempt to personalise the PL campaign around the prime minister’s figure so that when the election is done and dusted Abela can say ‘he’ won it for the party.

In a way, it is taking a leaf out of the PN playbook. The most recent was GonziPN in 2008, when the leader’s popularity was used to propel the party to victory. But election pundits will also remember the ‘Eddie Fiduċja’ billboards from the 1992 election when the PN had secured a 13,000-vote majority, paving the way for one of the largest electoral victories until then.

The PL strategists will be hoping that ‘Robert 2022’ will deliver another big win that could possibly eclipse Muscat’s super majorities and in this way Abela’s legacy will be forged in victory. Such a strategy may benefit Abela but risks destabilising the party, as happened to the PN in the years after GonziPN.

2. Taking the personal criticism head-on

One other reason for adopting ‘Robert 2022’ is to confront head-on the personal criticism of Abela’s lifestyle and wealth that has been directed towards him by the PN.

Since last September, PN leader Bernard Grech has hit out at Abela’s rich lifestyle, his comfortable upbringing and boating jaunts, trying to picture the prime minister as a spoilt rich kid who cannot understand the concerns of ordinary people.

The campaign intensified at the turn of the year when the PN came out with billboards contrasting the income Abela’s legal firm had from the Planning Authority - €17,000 per month – with the meagre cost of living increase people received in January.

A more recent twist was the link between Abela and car dealer Christian Borg, who was recently charged with abducting a man. Abela had served as Borg’s legal advisor and was also involved in a property deal with him. Abela has denied any wrongdoing from the time before he became prime minister.

Although these stories do not appear to have hurt Abela’s poll numbers, they could get people thinking, especially at a time when the cost of living is leaving an impact on the pockets of families and pensioners.

‘Robert 2022’ will be an attempt to show that Abela will not shy away from confronting the criticism being levied towards him. He will want to show that ‘Robert’ is close to the people and in a balancing act with ‘Team Malta’, will ask voters to trust him and his team to lead the country forward.

3. The winning card

The PL may also want to capitalise to the maximum on Abela’s very strong trust ratings that have consistently put him ahead of his party’s popularity. ‘Robert 2022’ capitalises on Abela’s trust ratings that give the PL growth potential as opposed to the PN, which has seen all its leaders after Gonzi consistently faring worse than the party.

Abela will want to take the battle directly to his opponent, Bernard Grech. The core question the PL will ask voters is who they prefer going up the stairs of Castille: Robert or Bernard?

This strategy will attempt to draw a distinction between the PL’s new faces drafted in by Abela over the past two years and the PN’s old faces that still remember the Gonzi era led by Grech.

At this level, the PL knows that it has a big advantage over the Opposition hounded by its fractured recent past.

‘Robert 2022’ tries to endear voters to the man who aspires to lead a team to another big victory and take the country forward. But crucially it will also remind unsure voters of the alternative – Bernard Grech and his disparate band.

How unsure voters will respond is another matter altogether but ‘Robert 2022’ will definitely start at an advantage.