After the PN-PD alliance: coalitions and the art of the possible in Malta

Politics is the art of the possible, and the PD and AD are no exception: but while he the PD appears too keen on gambling its identity with a quick deal with the PN, AD is reluctant to take the risk

Marlene Farrugia and Simon Busuttil sealed a 'pact' with a handshake last week
Marlene Farrugia and Simon Busuttil sealed a 'pact' with a handshake last week

The greatest obstacle for third parties in their bid to get elected to the Maltese parliament is the ‘wasted vote’ problem. The Maltese electoral system ensures that only the first preference vote counts in determining who is elected to form the next government. It is only those who renounce their power to choose between the lesser of two evils, who vote for a third party.

And this means that in the absence of a miracle which sees a third party winning some 2,000 first count votes, coupled with hundreds of second preferences in one particular district, the only chance for election to parliament is through a pre-electoral alliance with one of the major parties.

In this way all those who want third party representation but who want a say on who governs the country, will suddenly become potential voters for a third party. In this sense Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party (PD) can become the automatic choice of those who prefer the PN to the PL in government but would still like to see a third party elected to parliament. What the PN gains from this arrangement are that any votes gained for the PD will not be lost by the PN.

Coalition or assimilation?

The downside is the competition PN candidates will face by PD candidates in some districts. For some, the PN’s willingness to strike a deal with the PD signifies weakness, but itdoes represent a positive continental evolution in Busuttil’s political thinking, that of seeking a coalition with people from a different political culture, rather than simply assemble star candidates united by sheer loyalty towards the leader.

Marlene Farrugia (centre) addressing a PD press conference outside Castille
Marlene Farrugia (centre) addressing a PD press conference outside Castille

Not recognising this would be intellectually dishonest, especially on the part of those who have advocated coalition politics for the past decades. But is the deal between the PN and the PD really a coalition? A real coalition would entail the formation of a common list with a common name and programme, which is neither PD nor PN.

On this aspect the newly-formed alliance falls short on this important aspect of coalition politics.

An ideal solution would have been both parties contesting with a common name. But this would entail the formation of a new party, something required by law – which refers to parties but not to alliances between parties – and which may be very difficult to do in a few months before the general election. Probably it would also represent too much of a qualitative change for the PN’s grassroots to accept.

The PD has accepted to contest on the PN list with its candidates identifying themselves with a “nickname”.  This may sound somewhat degrading and surely a hard pill to swallow for any self-respecting politician. Still, politics is the art of the possible and a ‘give and take’ process, especially when minnows are dealing with a huge whale like the PN.

One still has to see which tangible concessions the PD will win in terms of exposure during the electoral campaign and in terms of policies included in a common manifesto with the PN.

Ultimately coalition-making is based on the art of the possible, as clearly demonstrated by coalitions in other European countries where junior coalition partners tend to influence policy in a few key areas, while using their influence to tone down those aspects of the dominant’s party’s policy which are least to their liking. The most successful coalition partners are not those who constantly stamp their feet, but those who are can influence and negotiate.

One may also ask whether a coalition with the PN is desirable at the moment for any third party.  While the PN promises good governance, its credibility on this issue is constantly eroded by past and present, minor and serious misdemeanours.

The other danger is that with Labour probably winning the next election with a comfortable margin, one would end up with a coalition of losers, with the third party sharing the burden of defeat.  The PD may well be risking becoming the scapegoat for the PN’s defeat in the next election. 

The other disadvantage relates to identity: the PD is taking a big gamble by embracing the PN after being in existence for just a couple of months. The gamble can only pay off, if the PD wins representation in parliament and only if this party evolves from being perceived as Marlene Farrugia’s personal party.

Too early for PD?

The PD’s ultimate problem is that despite attracting some valid elements, some of which being a more liberal orientation than Marlene Farrugia herself, it remains perceived as an electoral vehicle for its charismatic, strong but impulsive leader.
Would it have been wiser to wait for the 2023 election? The answer is a double-edged sword.

The moment the PN starts believing that it can win on its own steam, it will probably be less interested in striking deals with small parties. By 2023 the PN may be strong enough to contest alone and will be less interested in coalitions. Perhaps Labour may be interested if it risks losing next time round, but again Labour is much more alien to the whole concept of coalition politics than the PN.

What about the Greens? Where does all this leave AD which has been around for nearly 30 years without electing an MP? At present AD’s greatest asset are the experience, track record and the integrity of candidates like Arnold Cassola, Mario Mallia and Carmel Cacopardo.

Alternattiva Demokratika: Carmel Cacopardo (right) says the assimilation route for third parties is not what AD wants
Alternattiva Demokratika: Carmel Cacopardo (right) says the assimilation route for third parties is not what AD wants

AD does not come across as an anti-establishment party. But it also lacks the energy and buzz of a new party, which has just entered the political scene. If there is a party which is best placed to win votes within a coalition with the PN it is AD, which has always performed best in PN-oriented districts.

For AD the best result ever, the MEP elections in 2004 which saw Cassola winning 9% of the vote, mainly consisted of voters who traditionally vote PN in general elections. The tenth district – Sliema and St Julian’s – may be fertile ground for the historical election of a Green candidate, if these voters are given a say in determining which party they want to see governing Malta in the next five years (or at least the chance of reducing the margins of a more probable Labour victory).

Unlike the PD, AD has a history and track record which for voters would serve as a greater insurance against the PN relapsing to its old ways. In the inevitable give-and-take process, AD may have greater bargaining power in securing guarantees for reforms, but to get there it has to sacrifice its purity and swallow some pride.

Personally, I doubt the PN is even interested in dealing with AD. But the only way to know that is by testing the PN with a concrete offer. What if AD manages to secure clear commitments on electoral and constitutional reforms?

Can the Greens turn around?

Writing in the Sunday Times, AD leader Arnold Cassola did not close the doors, suggesting that AD is willing to join a coalition with the PN, if the latter comes clean on party financing allegations and if the parties contest on a common list with a common name and an agreed manifesto covering good governance but also fiscal, economic and social policy. 

While such a maximalist approach follows a certain logic, it also betrays a reluctance to take risks. Instead the party seems resigned to contest the next election alone despite recognising the benefits of coalition politics, risking being overtaken by the new kids on the block, the far-right and anti-establishment patriots.

And here there is a real risk that after the next election AD will not live to fight for another day.

AD chairperson Arnold Cassola did not completely rule out coalition talks with the PN
AD chairperson Arnold Cassola did not completely rule out coalition talks with the PN

Neither is AD showing the signs of generational renewal, which would enable it to ride on the crest of a protest vote against both parties. While Marlene Farrugia’s PD may be too young to gamble its yet undefined identity in an alliance with the PN, AD shows all the signs of political paralysis.

Ultimately while the PD may have been so keen on a coalition, perhaps motivated by Farrugia’s self preservation instincts that it did not gain enough in terms of concessions from negotiating with the PN, AD – which may have more bargaining power – is either playing hard to get or is happy to retreat to the safety of its non-eventful existence.

And that would be a pity when the country could greatly benefit if someone like Arnold Cassola is elected to the national parliament where he will be in a position to propose and shape legislation and defend the common good.