[ANALYSIS] PN-AD coalition: Fatal embrace or opportunity?

With growing talk of pre-electoral coalitions between the PN and smaller parties, JAMES DEBONO asks what is at stake for the Green Party as it faces an existential debate a few months before a general election

AD councillor and former leader Michael Briguglio wants his party to consider a coalition with the PN and Marlene Farrugia’s PD
AD councillor and former leader Michael Briguglio wants his party to consider a coalition with the PN and Marlene Farrugia’s PD

In an interview with Sunday newspaper Illum, former Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Michael Briguglio – who currently represents the party on the Sliema local council – called on his party to “consider” the possibility of a pre-electoral coalition with the PN. Deputy Chairperson Carmel Cacopardo replied that this was not the right time for such a move. 

Briguglio’s argument is pragmatic. In the absence of a national epiphany which sees thousands of voters migrate to the small party, it is impossible under the current electoral system for a third party to win a seat in parliament on its own steam.

For a small party to win a seat in parliament it would need around 2,000 first preference votes (in a single district) and about 1,000 votes transferred from other parties. This crude reality makes it easy for big parties to denigrate a vote for small parties as a wasted one. So to avoid this handicap a small party may contest on a joint list with a bigger party in a way that voters can vote for it while choosing which party they want to see leading the government.

“A cross-party, pre-electoral coalition – with different party candidates on the same list – may offer the best of both worlds if formulated properly. It would comprise smaller parties who are closer to such voters’ beliefs, and it would also dispel the ‘wasted vote’ threat,” Briguglio wrote in a recently penned article. 

Missed opportunities

Those familiar with AD’s internal debates are not shocked by Briguglio’s suggestion. The thought was actively entertained in the aftermath of the EU referendum and it was the PN, which refused the offer to form a joint pro-EU list in which AD candidates would have been on the same list as the PN.

Instead the PN offered the Speaker’s post in return for not contesting. AD refused the offer and went to campaign asking PN voters to give their second preference to AD, a strategy which earned it the rebuke of then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami on the eve of the election.

In the aftermath of the 2008 election there was also talk of a “progressive alliance” with Labour but this failed to materialise as the most Labour would offer was for AD to be absorbed by the Labour Party and become a section of the party. 

The problem for AD is that whenever one votes for a third party in Malta one automatically disqualifies himself or herself from choosing which of the big parties will govern the country. This is because if only two parties are elected to parliament, it is the party with the relative majority of votes, which automatically wins a majority of seats in parliament.

Surely a few don’t care which of the two parties is elected to govern them but many voters are not willing to renounce this power. This explains the discrepancy between AD’s vote in local council level where the government is not at stake and national election results. While Michael Briguglio was elected for a fourth time in the Sliema local council with 8% of the vote, the party only got 2.3% in the tenth district which includes Sliema in the general election held on the same day.

But in a pre-electoral alliance-in the form of a joint list with a major party, a small party like AD will not only benefit from in-house vote transfers but also it may attract first preferences of people who simply vote for the lesser evil. 

So why ally oneself with the PN and not the PL? Simply because at this stage the PL can easily win alone and does not need AD. It is the PN, which may need AD, not just to increase its votes, but also for its credibility and good name. So if AD’s main aim is to get a seat in parliament to be in a position to propose laws and help clean up politics, a pre-electoral coalition seems to be the way to go.

AD deputy chairperson Carmel Cacopardo (left) argued that pre-electoral coalitions should be formed on the basis of a commonly agreed political platform
AD deputy chairperson Carmel Cacopardo (left) argued that pre-electoral coalitions should be formed on the basis of a commonly agreed political platform

Waiting for Godot

But if AD’s primary aim is to simply increase its first preferences to rock the boat, it also needs to revise its strategy, possibly becoming more radical and speak on other issues apart from good governance and the environment.

In this sense if AD goes for it alone it has to find more electoral niches which distinguish it from both PN and PL. In the context of AD contesting alone, should abortion and euthanasia remain taboos? For if good governance is your priority as a voter, would it make sense or you to vote for a party which was no chance of influencing the country’s parliamentary agenda?

Strategically one may argue that AD needs a critical mass of voters before even considering a coalition with either of the two parties. This will definitely strengthen its position in negotiations with the other side. Therefore an increase in votes this time round may make AD a more attractive coalition partner next time round. Everything may be up for grabs in 2023 when one expects the PN to have a more realistic chance of winning and Labour a greater risk of losing.

But it may well be that the current AD leadership is hinging its bets on a national epiphany, a moment of rapture which will see both big parties losing credibility and their voters more willing to vote AD.

In this way their strategy may well be that of avoiding divisive cultural issues like euthanasia, to become more appealing for mainstream voters departing from both the PN and PL. The latest scandal involving donations by db Group to the PN which follows even greater scandals like Panamagate which hit Labour in the past year, may have rekindled these hopes. Hope never dies, it seems.

The last refuge of purity

But beyond this pragmatic strategic argument there is a political argument. There are those who vote AD simply because it is ‘pure’ compared to the two behemoths. For these voters any contact with any of the big parties carries the risk of contamination.

The recent party financing scandal-involving donations by db Group paid to the PN has certainly dealt a blow to the PN’s good governance credentials, thus making the party even more toxic for such voters.

Unlike Marlene Farrugia’s nascent Democratic Party, AD has a 28-year history to defend and one understands its reluctance to risk its hard earned reputation for honesty by hinging its bets on an alliance with the PN. 

Why should AD risk its standing with its core voters by associating its good name with a party like the PN which has so many warts?

A coalition of losers?

Moreover polls show that Labour will probably win the next general election by a comfortable margin. The chances of the PN winning the next election are slim. The latest MaltaToday survey shows the PL still winning even if the PN teams up with both the PD and AD. Why should AD join a coalition of losers? Why team up with the PN when the party shows so many signs of weakness? 

The answer to these questions depends on what AD will get in return in terms of policy, reforms and parliamentary representation. For example what if AD secures a commitment for electoral reform from the PN? 

But why take the plunge now instead of waiting for a more appropriate moment? The answer to that may be that big parties will only negotiate with the small fry when they are weak. A galvanised PN in the run up to the 2023 election may be less willing to strike a deal with AD than it now. 

In fact both the PN and the PL prefer co-opting individuals from AD rather than having to negotiate a common programme with a principled green party, which may be unpalatable to its conservative elements. In fact Michael Briguglio was courted by Labour after 2008 and by the Nationalists after 2013 and has refused both offers.

Cacopardo’s note of caution

Carmel Cacopardo does not exclude a coalition with the PN. But he argues that the timing for it is wrong, especially in the wake of the donation scandal. He also argues that the Salvu Mallia formula, which sees the PN turning in to a grand coalition hosting candidate’s coalitions “simultaneously championing diametrically opposed causes”, does not work for AD.

“Real pre-electoral coalitions are assembled in a quite different manner. They should be formed on the basis of a commonly agreed political platform – one which plots an agreed electoral programme as well as the manner in which this should be implemented by the coalition partners,” he wrote in a recent blog.

Formulating a common programme is something that takes time and long-term commitment from both sides. But writing in February, Cacopardo like Briguglio hinted that a pre-electoral coalition would represent a “watershed in Maltese politics” adding that “this is the real challenge, if we wish to move forward.”

This suggests that Cacopardo and Briguglio are on the same wavelength as regards strategy but while the former is cautious, Briguglio wants to take the plunge now.

It takes two to tango

Still even if AD agrees on making a coalition offer, will the PN take the bait? For while for AD there are clear advantages in contesting on a joint ticket with the PN, what does the PN gain from an alliance with AD?

In a coalition with the PN, AD would surely lose those who detest both parties in equal doses but it would win those who prefer AD to the PN but prefer a PN-led government to a Labour-led government.

This may well open the floodgates of votes for AD in the tenth districts and eleventh districts which include favourable localities such as Sliema and Attard. 

While an alliance with Marlene Farrugia’s PD may help the PN’s fortunes in the fifth district where it is weak, an alliance with AD may actually increase competition for PN candidates in districts which the PN can win on its own steam.

The only advantage for the PN is that an alliance with AD would act as a kind of insurance for its good governance pledge. In this sense AD in parliament would guarantee that the PN won’t break its good governance pledge if elected again to power.

What is sure is that time may be catching up with AD which can no longer boast of being fresh and new. The day after the 2018 general election nobody will be impressed by a debate on AD’s fluctuations between 1% and 2%. In this sense, the choice for AD is between striving for a big national epiphany, which will see an improbable meltdown of the two party system or to pragmatically seek incremental change through tedious coalition talks.

In both cases AD will have to engage in an effective strategy and has to make very hard choices. Irrespective of the strategy chosen AD also needs a charismatic leadership, a sleek propaganda campaign and an attractive corporate image, three qualities where AD is currently failing and which are essential for the success of any strategy. 

Some may argue that the goal for now should be that of buying time surviving to live for another day, and perhaps reap the benefits of coalition politics in 2023 but will the electorate wait for that?