Four reasons why the Democratic Party has still not reaped the harvest

With the 17 Black scandal weighing on Joseph Muscat’s credibility and increased turmoil in the Opposition after news of a money-laundering investigation on Adrian Delia’s Soho links, the Democratic Party, already represented in parliament by two MPs, should be prospering. Why have polls so far not registered gains by this party?

2017: After departing from Labour, Godfrey Farrugia addresses a PN mass meeting as an independent MP fielded by the fledgling Democratic Party
2017: After departing from Labour, Godfrey Farrugia addresses a PN mass meeting as an independent MP fielded by the fledgling Democratic Party

Godfrey Farrugia – a charismatic and widely respected former health minister and former Labour whip with deep roots in the community – should be enjoying a field day as leader of the Democratic Party.

Unlike his firebrand partner Marlene he comes across as calm, moderate and measured. As a former Labour politician now elected on the PN ticket in 2017, he may be singled out for inconsistencies, like having voted against a motion of censure on Konrad Mizzi in 2016. But his political life story put him in league with floating voters. 

He can be a magnet for disgruntlement in Labour over corruption and environmental neglect and for that segment in the PN which does not feel represented in its current leadership. By outsmarting the PN and presenting its own motion of censure in Konrad Mizzi, the Democratic Party has taken centre-stage, putting Opposition leader Adrian Delia in the uncomfortable position of having to ditch this motion not to play second fiddle to what was Simon Busuttil’s junior coalition partner.

Instead Delia pressed ahead with a motion calling for a public inquiry on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. The timing could not have been worse. On Sunday the Times reported that the police was investigating money-laundering activities by Soho companies of which Delia had been a legal representative, first revealed in Caruana Galizia’s own blog.

Immediately the PD increased the dose, calling on the PN leader to suspend himself from leader of the Opposition. This may be a sign of the PD trying to assert itself in the political landscape; despite the advantage of parliamentary representation, polls conducted over 2018 showed the Democratic Party enjoying the same level of support as Alternattiva Demokratika. 

The party’s fortunes may well change in the next months as more undecided people make up their mind on how to vote in next May’s MEP elections but to do so it has to contend with the four reasons which have so far inhibited its growth.

Friends of the PN... not good for Labour voters
Friends of the PN... not good for Labour voters

1. Labour voters remain allergic to it

Despite being represented in parliament by two former Labour politicians, the party has never been a magnet for Labour-leaning voters who may have qualms on Muscat’s handling of Panamagate and his cosy ties with big business. 

One reason for this is that despite some discomfort on issues like governance and the environment, most of these voters remain loyal to the party. Surveys held before the latest 17 Black revelations only showed 9% of PL voters being undecided or intent on not voting.

But there may be a small segment of Labour voters which has had enough with impunity and corruption and would be willing to support a new party, especially in a mid-term test where they could use their vote to clip the wings of the dominant party. 

The inability of the PD to tap in the Labour cohort of voters may well be due to the perception of the Democratic Party as a faction of the PN.

The fact that the party owes its two seats in parliament to a declared alliance with the PN in Busuttil’s National Force may be one of the reasons why such voters are put off, especially in view of the outcome of the Egrant inquiry. Another turn-off for these voters may be the party’s identification with civil society groups associated with Caruana Galizia’s legacy. 

For in its attempt to attract support among PN voters disgruntled by Delia but still loyal to Busuttil, the PD may be alienating potential support from the Labour side of the spectrum. In this way the PD often finds itself running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, earning the nods of PN supporters who resent Delia but winning little support from Labour. 

The PD still has to find a way to speak to both segments of potential voters in a reassuring way. Godfrey Farrugia comes closest to doing so due to the respect he still enjoys across the political spectrum.

Yet he is vulnerable to criticism by Delia loyalists for having remained loyal to Labour until the eve of the 2017 election, and for having previously voted against a previous motion of censure in Mizzi when Farrugia served as Labour’s whip.

Labour chums... Godfrey Farrugia had supported Konrad Mizzi in a motion of censure
Labour chums... Godfrey Farrugia had supported Konrad Mizzi in a motion of censure

2. Disgruntled Nationalist voters may still hope in change in their own party

Surveys have shown that a significant portion of PN voters in the 2017 election remain in a state of suspended animation, saying that they are either undecided or intent on not voting in a forthcoming election. According to the latest MaltaToday survey these amount to 46% of PN voters in 2017. This suggests that the PD can still tap into a large pool of voters. 

This cohort may include voters disillusioned by Delia and who are still loyal to the party’s former leader. But it may also include voters suffering from electoral fatigue and middle of the road (MOR) voters who simply want a more credible leadership. Faced by MEP elections in May some in this cohort may be tempted to vote for the PD. 

This choice may be reinforced by news that Delia’s links to Soho companies are now under investigation. But this is far from inevitable. The PN’s menu also includes candidates palatable for PN voters who resent Delia but fear an overwhelming Labour victory which they fear would crush the Opposition. 

PN voters may also have been turned off by the PD’s post-2017 election behaviour, which first saw Marlene Farrugia hinting at an interest in the PN leadership and then the party forcing by-elections to make it more difficult for Delia to take his seat after being elected PN leader.

The PD risks over-reaching itself again by calling for Delia’s resignation at the very moment when he is focusing on the corruption issue in an attempt to re-unite his party. Another disadvantage for the PD in these elections is that its menu of candidates so far lacks household names and it still has to build a strong national profile for its two candidates; Anthony Buttigieg and Martin Cauchi Inglott.  

This may change if the PD fields Godfrey Farrugia but if it does so the PD may risk burning its best asset in an improbable race for an MEP seat.

Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia: bland centrism wins no votes
Marlene Farrugia and Godfrey Farrugia: bland centrism wins no votes

3. Too angry for moderates… too bland for radicals 

Beyond a commitment to environmental causes and good governance, the PD comes across as a run-of-the-mill centrist party. It surely cannot be defined as an anti-system or populist party. This may put the PD at an advantage with moderate voters but some of these may be turned off by the party’s association with the PN’s more bellicose anti-Muscat wing. 

For example, by lashing out at Delia for a selfie taken with Muscat before a football match, the PD is limiting its support among the category of MOR voters who resent confrontational politics. The party is also associated with the conservative stance of its two MEPs on embryo-freezing and their firm opposition to abortion. 

But unlike Delia, the PD MPs have voted for the domestic violence law and the five days of leave given to IVF patients, thus managing to come across as less conservative than the PN. Still memories of Marlene Farrugia expressing misgivings on the ‘morning after’ pill may still block progressive voters from considering this party as an option. 

The party has so far failed to leave a mark by confronting Labour from the left on social and economic issues while over the past months it has also largely avoided the migration issue. The party’s blandness is mirrored in its choice of European allies; the ALDE alliance of pro-European centrist parties which is the third largest in the European parliament. 

The party’s bland centrism decreases the chances of the party appealing to the small segment of left-wing voters who may still opt for AD or to migration-obsessed voters who may be more likely to opt for a far-right outfit. While these two segments may well be minoritarian, they may include the largest number of voters who have backed third parties in past elections.

Godfrey Farrugia won his seat in the House by fielding the PD on the PN ticket in 2017
Godfrey Farrugia won his seat in the House by fielding the PD on the PN ticket in 2017

4. Mainstream voters have been traditionally wary of third parties

The Democratic Party’s appeal to MOR voters may be handicapped by the ability of both parties to present MEP candidates who may be palatable to this segment of voters. Moreover, the trend over past elections bar one, has been for voters to move from one traditional party to the other. 

Although no government is at stake in MEP elections and people are free to vote for third parties without fear of helping the party they dislike most to win power, voters have remained loyal to the major parties in the two most recent MEP elections.

So far there has been one historic exception to this trend: Arnold Cassola’s near miss in the first MEP elections held in 2004 where nearly one tenth of voters opted for the Green Party candidate.

On that occasion Cassola capitalised on the goodwill he gained among pale blue voters during the EU referendum and on the first signs of the disaggregation of the PN’s coalition of voters. 

Yet while in 2004 AD managed to tap into the disgruntlement against the party in government because the Opposition was still perceived in a bad light, so far there have been little signs of any significant number of PL voters looking for new pastures in 2019. And the PD may end up competing for votes within the restricted cohort of 2017 PN voters.

Floaters who shifted to Labour in 2013 and 2017 may be an ideal catchment area for third parties like the PD but this depends on their level of dissatisfaction with the government. 

However, surveys so far have suggested that apart from those who switched to the Forza Nazzjonali before 2017, this cohort which also includes PN voters who first voted Labour in 2017, has largely remained loyal to Muscat’s Labour.

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