Yellow card for Abela... but will PN gains last?

Labour has been rocked by corruption scandals ever since Panamagate in 2016. But it did not stop the party’s super-majorities in 2017 and 2022. Why has the Steward hospitals scandal come at such a big polling cost to Labour? And wil the PN sustain its gains, or will conservative retrenchment keep Labour voters away, asks James Debono

Opposition leader Bernard Grech (right) and Prime Minister Robert Abela (left)
Opposition leader Bernard Grech (right) and Prime Minister Robert Abela (left)

Corruption becomes an issue when combined with other factors like declining purchasing power

Corruption has dominated the news headlines since 2016, when the Panama Papers exposed Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri as owners of secret companies set up to channel funds from other secret companies set up by magnate Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. But despite an initial shock, also reflected in polls at the time, Labour went on to win super-majorities in 2017 and 2022 on the same scale as 2013. So what has made the Vitals-Steward hospital deal different in effect?

One major difference is that here the Opposition has been vindicated by a scathing court sentence. Unlike the Electrogas concession on Delimara, which despite the alleged corruption has contributed to a reduction in utility bills, the hospitals privatisation came with no benefits and only an haemorrhage public funds with no deliverables, like the promised new Gozo hospital.

But the timing of the court sentence has coincided with a period of increased hardship from spiralling inflation. It could be a far worse situation had the government not absorbed the hike in energy prices, but surveys now show inflation is the Maltese’s major concern, a throwback to the pre-2013 years. And this changes optics for voters and their perception of corruption – significantly, the latest survey shows the PN making gains among the secondary-educated, a cohort which includes older, working-class voters. Here the PN has gained 10 points while Labour lost a staggering 20.

Yet what the PN cannot forget is that when choosing any government, voters will ask which prime minister they can trust in a moment of crisis, as was COVID, and now with inflation triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Muscat’s legacy is a liability but confronting him remains tricky for Abela

Labour leader Robert Abela has walked on a tightrope ever since his election, avoiding direct confrontation with a predecessor whose loyalists have also been sidelined by the new PM.

This was partly understandable before the 2022 general election, when Abela found himself inheriting Joseph Muscat’s mandate on a pledge of “continuity”. But with a super-majority of his own, Abela is now his own man, and while blaming Muscat for past decisions could provide Abela a way out, it inevitably raises questions on how he will hold his predecessor to account. Abela should be aloof from police investigations that have any bearing on his predecessor, but loyalists are bound to interpret any proceedings against Muscat as an act of betrayal on Abela’s part.

Still, the shockwaves from the latest MaltaToday poll are bound to weaken Muscat’s stature in the party. Cherished as the politician who restored Labour’s electoral fortunes and the architect of unprecedented majorities, Muscat’s toxic legacy is now dragging the party down in the polls: Labour’s Phoenix has morphed into Abela’s albatross, with the problem possibly coming to a head if a magisterial inquiry concludes that charges should be pressed against former ministers Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona and Edward Scicluna over the hospitals privatisation deal.

In this sense Abela’s failure to distance himself from the Muscat cabal in his first years in office may well come back to haunt him. For it was Abela’s silence on Muscat’s problematic legacy that left thousands of Labourites in the dark, believing the former leader is a victim of a conspiracy.

Unity worked wonders for the PN but failure to confront identity problems may come at a cost in the near future

After being blamed for the party’s bad polling in his time as PN leader, by winning the court case Adrian Delia has not just rehabilitated his name within the party but also handed Bernard Grech his best ever polling result, rescuing the PN from an abyss of successive negative polls.

Grech was quick to realise this and admirably shared his platform with his predecessor, who was so brutally spat out by the party establishment when presenting Grech as his challenger. But their united front seems to have brought the PN’s own civil war to an end. The question is, will it last? Or is it delaying the much-needed debate on the party’s identity and positioning? Labour can still exploit the PN’s divisions on reforms that split conservatives and the few remaining liberal voices in the PN.

Whether the PN’s latest gains are the kiss of life that will resurrect a political zombie depends on how the party sustains the momentum across a veritable minefiled of factionalism, especially when the euphoria of this Delia victory fizzles out.

If the unity lasts through to the European elections of 2024, to substantially narrow the gap between the two parties, the PN might just as well give Labour a run for its money in 2027.

That’s also a matter of how voters who presently identify as ‘non-voters’ in MaltaToday surveys, will see the PN as a credible alternative for government, or a threat to the gains achieved under Labour. To reach out to former Labour voters, the PN must also emphasise continuity and reassure those voters who harbour fears of a Nationalist, conservative “restoration”.

Cracks in Labour erode the perceptino of unity, but it’s a wake-up call on a much-needed internal debate to address the issues disorienting different segments of PL voters

Labour leaders have gloated about party unity as they saw the PN torn by factionalism, a factor that has undermined the PN’s attractiveness to govern with the stability the country needs.

But this also requires Labour to manage its own tensions inside its big-tent coalition, and the conflicts between those who truly believed in the ‘Malta Tagħna Lkoll’ mantra, and those who saw in Labour an opportunity to make a quick buck.

Labour’s economic record in the past decade dispelled mistrust on the party’s ability to manage a market economy, namely by pressing the accelerator that boosted growth. But now the party is facing resentment in communities irked by the creeping perception that the party is in cahoots with big business.

Even conflicting aspirations of younger, liberal Labour voters and older, socially conservative voters, may come to a head if the party sticks to its reformist agenda. But any backtracking on this front may well backfire on its appeal to voters who shifted to Labour for this very reason.

At this early stage in Abela’s legislature, this poll could be a wake-up call for the party before its problems grow any further.

But with an obsession for unity and deference to ‘caudillo’ leaders, Labour’s hubris can come at a huge cost. A debate on party direction after Joseph Muscat’s disgraced exit in 2019 should no longer be suppressed. Abela does have to choose: lead a continental party where debate is the order of the day, or run it like an autocracy.


Abstention is becoming a large parking space for voters dissatisfied with Labour but not convinced of PN’s ability to govern

The last survey shows that while 3% of PL voters in 2022 will vote PN, a far larger percentage (15%) will not vote. So despite the PN’s modest gains, not voting remains a more attractive option for former Labour voters which the PN needs to win over.

And that suggests that even Labour voters angry at the Abela administration, still do not see the PN as an alternative government.

So while abstention may well be the first step in a trajectory towards a change in government, it could also be seen as a yellow card to Labour rather than a red one.

Neither are there any signs of abstentionist voters who could migrate to a third party. Even with modest gains for green party ADPD, most Labour voters chose to park themselves in the abstentionist camp in another indication that their return to Labour cannot be excluded, especially when voters are asked to choose which party is best suited to govern Malta. The PN might ride the wave of disgruntlement until the MEP elections in 2024, but after that it will increasingly face questions on whether it is suitable to govern the country.

And to get there the PN may have to reassure those voters who fear a conservative backlash. Significantly the survey shows that one-third of voters under the age of 50, are intent on not voting; and more than half do not trust either political leader.

Yet Abela still enjoys a comfortable lead over Grech in both age groups. And among those aged 36-50, a staggering 51% will not vote but Abela still enjoys a 14-point lead over Grech in that group.

Cold shower for Labour and Nationalist glee could reinforce grassroots loyalties as they see PN recovery

The PN may be tempted to blow its trumpet prematurely, forgetting that at the moment any electoral inroads depend on recovering long lost trust among different segments of the electorate. Self-restraint in the face of favourable numbers is essential for a party with a reputation for being smug, arrogant and self-entitled.

In fact, some voters parked in the abstentionist camp may well go back to Labour if they start fearing a return to the PN’s old ways.

And while the PN is expected to stand up for fairness and militate against abuses by holding those responsible accountable, it has to reassure switchers that they will not face retribution for simply having once given Labour a chance.

On the other hand, Abela has a window of opportunity to start addressing those public concerns which are weighing the party down. In this sense, time is on Abela’s side but he can’t afford to take his voters for granted.