[ANALYSIS] The new switchers in the 2017 elections

Surveys held before the general election had already shown two counter swings, one from the PN to the PL and one from the PL to the PN. But was the former underestimated and how could the PN have lost more of its voters than it had already done in 2013?

The PN could no longer bank on Labour voters staying at home
The PN could no longer bank on Labour voters staying at home

Throughout the election campaign Nationalist party candidates constantly reported positive feedback about Labour voters and switchers who were returning to the PN fold or even voting PN for the first time. 

It was this feedback, which increased confidence among Nationalist ranks that the election was winnable. Based on this feedback some PN officials were even imagining a repeat of 2008.

But while pre-electoral surveys confirmed the shift from the PL to the PN, they also showed a smaller but significant counter shift from the PN to the PL. This meant that the PN could no longer bank on Labour voters staying at home. The election hinged on shifts between parties and on new voters.

Surveys published by Torca and MaltaToday one week before the election concurred in showing a shift from the PL to the PN. MaltaToday’s surveys also indicated that apart from a third of switchers, around 3% of PL voters in the 2008 general election were going to vote PN.  

Both the MaltaToday and Torca penultimate surveys showed 6% of Labour’s 2013 voters shifting to the PN. In real terms this would mean the PN gaining between 9,381 votes (Torca) and 10,555 votes (MaltaToday).

While the Torca survey showed the PN losing 3.6% of its 2013 vote to Labour, MaltaToday showed the PN losing 3.3%. This would mean that the PN was losing between 4,370 votes (MaltaToday) and 4,767 votes (Torca) to the PL.

The final survey by MaltaToday carried out in election week showed 4% of PN voters in 2013 shifting to the PL and 5.8% of PL voters in 2013 shifting to the PN.

On the other hand the final Torca survey showed 5.1% of PL voters in 2013 voting PN and 6.3% of PN voters opting for the PL. This may suggest that by the final week of the campaign the percentage of PN voters shifting to Labour was on the increase.

The final Torca survey even suggested that the two swings would have nearly cancelled each other out. While the PL was losing 8,544 votes to the PN, the PN was losing 8,343 to the PL. On the other hand the MaltaToday survey still showed the PL losing 9,717 votes to the PN and the PN losing 5,297 to the PL.

All other surveys conducted during the campaign by the Independent and TVM’s Xarabank also showed Labour losing more to the PN than the PN losing to Labour. But in MaltaToday’s survey the number of PN voters shifting to the PL doubled from the first week of the campaign to the last one. While under-representation of this category of voters in surveys may indicate that it was too shy to express its voting intentions, its increase during the electoral campaign may indicate that Labour’s campaign was more effective with this category.

A PL strategy?

The PL may have been all the way banking on compensating losses among switchers and disgruntled Labourites by some gains in the PN’s 2013 cohort.

In fact the active role of former Nationalists like Karl Stagno Navarra, Ian Castaldi Paris and Robert Musumeci in the campaign, both in the social media and on One TV suggests that there was a plan. Moreover surveys conducted before the electoral campaign already showed 4% of PN voters in 2013 shifting to the PL.

By moving his party to the centre-right on economic issues while retaining a centre-left appeal on social issues, Muscat may have deliberately banked on a shift of Nationalist voters coming to his rescue. This shift also included traditionally Nationalist-leaning categories who are benefitting from the construction and property boom and also others who approved of the introduction of more civil liberties like gay rights.

Moreover unlike switchers in 2013 who may have been motivated by good governance issues and thus more susceptible to Muscat’s constant failures on this front, this category of Nationalist voters are intrinsically tolerant of bad governance which was far from absent under PN administrations, and more appreciative of economic stability.

By dispelling their fear that Labour would ruin economic stability, Muscat was no longer seen as a threat by Nationalist voters who identified with the PN precisely for that reason. This category may also include voters who had grown used to identify with the PN as a natural party of government and came to see Muscat’s party in the same way. Such voters who supported the PN as a bastion against what they perceived as a chaotic and unpredictable Labour party, may have come to see Busuttil’s PN in the same way.  

The PL’s new role as the dispenser of patronage and its power of incumbency may well have been a factor. For while the media tends to misrepresent switchers as educated floaters, this category may also include a large number of opportunistic voters. Some may have actually feared that the PN would roll back liberal policies (like those introduced in the planning sector) which benefitted them under Labour.

A dilemma for the new leader

The continued ability of Muscat to lure segments of the Nationalist electorate poses problems for the future PN leadership. For it would be wrong for the PN to take any of its voters for granted. Yet neither can Muscat take any of his voters for granted. 

For while Busuttil clearly succeeded in attracting a chunk of Labour voters and switchers, by taking a strong stance of good governance and repositioning the party to the left, this was corresponded by further losses among the original cohort of 2013 voters. Yet Busuttil’s ability to attract some voters from the opposite camp suggests that he poked holes in the myth that the Labour vote is unassailable. The PN leadership seems to have assumed that it could not lose any more from its cohort of voters than it did in 2013. It was wrong.  

In its desperate bid to dramatise the situation to rekindle enthusiasm among supporters and returning switchers (along with some Labour voters) it may well have alienated some Nationalist voters. Moreover this sensation was reinforced by the extreme language used by some of its candidates, such as Salvu Mallia.

Moreover the PN was not effective in countering the PL’s economic narrative. For while crying wolf on an imminent economic collapse was counter productive, as people have to see to believe, the PN did not do enough to emphasise the need for a sustainable economy and to come out with a robust programme aimed at a fairer economy and sustainable growth. But while appealing to mainstream PN voters who yearn for stability is important, it is equally important for the PN to retain thousands of voters gained from the PL and AD in the past years. And to do this the party can’t afford to project itself as a photocopy of Muscat’s party. Moreover one may also argue one major failure was to convince more switchers and Labour voters to switch simply because the PN lacked the authenticity to give credence to its good governance pledge.

Many voters may have agreed with the PN on the need of good governance but were not convinced that the PN would honour its pledge once elected. It may also be the case that the PN leader was unable to communicate the message effectively and convincingly. Perhaps this may well be the greatest challenge for a future PN leader.  For in the absence of an imminent economic collapse, which is unlikely, the PN can only win back support if it convinces the electorate that it can govern better and more fairly.