Young political agnostics: why Malta could be on the cusp of change

The political choices of young voters will have party chiefs scratching their heads: James Debono tries to understand how these voters could be shaping the political landscape

Voting with a different songbook: youth voters are out of love for the established parties
Voting with a different songbook: youth voters are out of love for the established parties

An absolute majority of voters aged between 16 and 35 (52%) trust neither of the two political leaders and a relative majority (34%) will not vote if an election is held now.

These findings from a MaltaToday survey released last Sunday suggest that among this category political agnostics are now more numerous than supporters of either party.

Moreover, among the young, while Labour has lost a substantial eight points since July, the PN has not only lost 11 points but has been surpassed by ADPD which scores a record 8%.

Significantly, Grech’s trust rating in this category falls to an abysmal 7% compared to Abela’s 35%.  Yet, while Abela remains more popular than Grech, in a clear indication that Labour is also losing consent among younger voters, the Prime Minister lost a staggering 12 points since July.

Forced cohabitation in the PN

This suggests that Labour’s enduring majority, especially among younger people, is increasingly dependent on a non-contest with a zombie opposition.

The PN may live in the hope that at some point voters will vote for it by default of it being the only alternative to Labour, or that a new charismatic leader will come out of nowhere with a magical ability to reassemble the pro-EU coalition of 2003. Incidentally, the 2003 general election was the last time the PN had an absolute majority in the country.

But the downward spiral among younger voters suggests that the PN is at risk of extinction.

One cannot help asking: would the country’s opposition be better served by a plurality of political voices who actually stand for something than by an opposition in which rival factions are forced to cohabit? For, like children in an unhappy marriage, the rival factions in the PN may well feel relieved after a divorce.

In a nutshell, the survey not only suggests growing disenchantment with the two-party system among young voters, but also a collapse of the PN, which appears disconnected from younger voters. This is a clear indication that the PN’s brand has become toxic for most young voters.

Young, educated and agnostic

The survey also shows that a higher level of education also contributes to waning political loyalties.

In fact, among tertiary educated, 49% distrust both political leaders. The only difference is that in this segment the PN remains marginally stronger than Labour in an indication that this category includes a segment of older upper middle class PN voters.

ADPD also registers a respectable 7% among the university educated.

This trend suggests that political disillusionment is stronger among tertiary educated young people.

The survey also suggests that what we are seeing now is a reinforcement of a trend which was already established in surveys conducted before the electoral campaign, which was reflected in a record level of abstentions in the election itself.

Surveys conducted before the election already suggested that the young and higher educated prevailed among political agnostics.   

But the percentage of young voters who distrust both Grech and Abela has shot up by 17 points from February levels and by 16 points from July levels.

The percentage of young people who will not be voting has shot up from 19% in February to 23% in July to 33% now. Similar patterns are seen among the tertiary educated where distrust in both leaders has increased from 34% in February to 43% in July and to 49% now.

But while it is easy to find reasons why younger and educated voters are rejecting a political system marred by corruption and patronage it is harder to understand why these voters are punishing the PN after a Labour dominated decade, which saw the country changing at breath-taking speed.

One reason for this is that while younger voters may be increasingly critical of some of these changes, they are also wary of an opposition which looks like a throw-back to a past which they no longer recognise or relate to.

Fatigue and the post pandemic rebound

One major factor contributing to the surge in disenchantment may well be the collective switching off from politics reinforced by the post pandemic summer rebound which saw young people fully enjoying the summer after a two-year disruption.

This may suggest that the disenchantment with politics has more to do with electoral fatigue than with any profound aspiration for a different political system. But it is also possible that the return to ‘normality’ after the pandemic has also reinforced concerns on the environment, traffic and over-population.

And while the pandemic did interrupt the progress of an anti-corruption movement galvanised by protests which led to the resignation of Joseph Muscat, one should not underestimate the impact of these events on the political formation of younger voters who have witnessed one scandal after another gnawing at the foundations of Malta’s democracy.

Moreover, civic activism by groups like Graffitti and Repubblika may have also solidified the perception that the PN and the PL are not the alpha and omega of political life.

Toxic conservatism

But the dismal results of the PN and Grech in the younger bracket may also indicate that the PN is completely disconnected from an age group which came of age after the water shed divorce referendum.

One reason could be ideological. The party may still be seen as an ultra-conservative force among a segment of more socially liberal-minded younger people who are also the most likely to agree with the decriminalisation of abortion.

Yet, one should also be wary of generalisations based on ‘ideal types’ found in text book categorisations.  For a more secular outlook among young people also co-exists with widespread anti-immigration sentiments and while young voters are more environmentally conscious, they are also influenced by consumerism and some of them may be actually benefit from networks of patronage which they inherited from parents.

But another reason for the PN’s disconnection from the young is that the party’s brand is considered toxic by these voters. Still ridden by factional divisions, the party fails to capture the imagination of young people.

Moreover, the generational renewal of the PN’s front bench in the past election has still not resonated among younger voters.

One major obstacle is that voters judge parties according to their leaders and Grech’s dismal 7% trust rating among young voters suggests that his decision to stay on after a major election defeat has obscured the only major success he had; that of electing new younger MPs.

But the PN’s problems may well go beyond the leadership crisis. The PN may well have lost its historic ability to coalesce a united opposition spanning across the generational and ideological spectrum in a struggle between two ‘big tent’ parties. By moving towards the political centre and in some cases to the right while retaining a liberal edge on civil liberties, Labour has simply replicated the PN’s success in the 1990s while retaining its own traditional core vote.

This absence of pluralism and diversity may well be an underlying reason for the disenchantment of younger voters who may be looking for greener pastures.

Will third parties fill the gaps?

But where does this leave third parties? The survey clearly shows that not voting remains the preferred option of younger voters who have lost trust in the political establishment.

But in the same way as blasphemy is more prevalent in Catholic societies, not voting itself confirms the strength of the duopoly which limits the choice to one between blue, red and nothing else. But the survey suggests that the Greens are making some inroads among young and educated voters. Possibly they may be filling the vacuum among a limited but growing number of socially liberal, anti-corruption and environmentally conscious voters.

But there may well be other niches lacking representation including pro-business liberals and even the far right. It may well be that younger voters are transitioning to a more pluralistic continental political system and are finding it harder to recognise themselves in two parties whose identity is shaped by tribal loyalty and rarely by ideology and values.

In this survey more than one tenth of young people choose a third party but this trend has to be confirmed in future surveys.

However, this state of flux is reinforced by another survey published on Illum showing a majority of younger and educated voters agreeing that Malta needs a third party.

Ultimately it is third parties who have to earn the trust of younger voters and to get there, they have to achieve results within the limits of the current (unfair) electoral system. Only a strong result by third parties will expose the faults of the present electoral system.

MEP elections in 2024 in which voters will have the liberty to vote without any concern on who will be governing the country, will be a test which third parties cannot afford to fail.