[ANALYSIS] Echoes of an implosion: How PN support shrunk over 20 years

A swing towards Labour turns Malta red, while third parties failed to chip at a hegemonised political landscape: digging deep into the numbers

Malta’s electoral map has assumed a darker shade of red, with deep blue localities now largely restricted to the more affluent north harbour and northern regions. In the meantime Labour has spread its tentacles beyond its southern strongholds, making substantial gains in central Malta, the rural north and parts of Gozo.

But this decline did not happen all of a sudden in this particular election.

Mqabba, a south-western locality that used to be Nationalist-leaning, best represents the predicament of the PN in the past two decades. In this locality the PL has grown from a 47% minority in 1999 to a 64% majority now, a gain of 17 points.

Another indicative case study is the Gozitan locality of Xaghra where the PN’s vote has dropped by a staggering 20 points between 2004 and 2019. Xaghra indicates that problems in Gozo have aggravated under Delia, with the party’s percentage dropping by 7 points between 2015 and 2019.

In an evident sign of demographic decline, urban centres in the south like Fgura saw the PN’s support fall from 36% at the dawn of the millennium, to just 25% now.

Although this drop has been in motion for at least the past decade, the process has accelerated. Compared to the previous elections, Labour gained over five points in Birzebbugia (+6), Fontana (+14), Mqabba (+7), Qrendi (7 points), Dingli (+6), Zejtun (+4), all localities where Labour already enjoyed a majority of over 55%. Even in Bormla where Labour was already at 81% in 2015, it could still grow by a further 3 points in this round of elections.

Have we really taken Valletta? Jubilation for Labour as One TV host Alfred Zammit is crowned mayor of the capital city, a first-time victory for the PL - below, how that final local council map looked, pretty red...
Have we really taken Valletta? Jubilation for Labour as One TV host Alfred Zammit is crowned mayor of the capital city, a first-time victory for the PL - below, how that final local council map looked, pretty red...

However, in many localities the party’s problems date back to the Gonzi years. In fact, the general impression is that the party’s problems hark back to the identity crisis which gripped the party after fulfilling its mission to get Malta in the EU. This problem may have been compounded by a growing detachment between the party and the southern part of the island, which was also reflected in a decrease in parliamentary representation from southern districts once dominated by heavyweights like Louis Galea and Ninu Zammit. In Mqabba, the party lost eight points between 2008 and 2013 and seven points between 2013 and 2019.

The pattern of decline is not uniform in all localities.

In St Paul’s Bay, a small recovery registered in the Busuttil era (2015) was scuppered in last week’s election. The same pattern can be observed in Mosta and Siggiewi where the party gained ground in 2015, only to experience a decline in this election. The party’s decline was more contained in localities like Rabat, where the party lost its majority in 2003 and only slipped one point from its support in 2009.
Significantly Labour also consolidated its lead in localities in central Malta which were PN-leaning till 2004. In Santa Venera the PL gained a further six points over 2013 to see its shaky majority of 53% rise to a more reliable majority of 59%.

In Birkirkara, the home of former PN leader Eddie Fenech Adami, whose son Michael once held the mayorship, and also home to the football club whose president Delia once was, the PN fell to a record low of 44% from 60% in 2000. The most dramatic decline was seen in Pietà where the PN support dropped from 55% in 2000 to 31% now. The decline in this locality was more pronounced in recent years with the party losing a staggering 17 points between 2013 and 2019.

In this way some pale red localities and marginal localities are increasingly assuming a darker shade of red. The cherry on the cake for Labour was its first ever win in Valletta. In the capital city Labour increased its vote by 5 points over 2013.

Labour also gained ground in a few PN strongholds like Balzan (+4) and Swieqi (+4) even if the PN had a better retention of votes in more affluent strongholds. For example, in Lija the PN still managed to gain four points over its 2013 result in which the PN had lost votes to an independent list.

One major question is whether the PN’s losses are mostly due to a shift towards Labour or to a drop in turnout which may have been more pronounced among PN voters. There can be no definitive answer to this question especially because comparisons are skewed by the fact that the previous round coincided with the 2013 general elections (which led to an abnormally large turnout) and with the hunting referendum in 2015 which may have bolstered the turnout both in PN-leaning ‘anti-hunting’ localities and PL-leaning ‘pro-hunting’ localities.
But the drop in turnout did not always result in a sharp drop in the PN vote.

PN stronger in its heartlands

For example, despite a seven-point drop in turnout in St Julian’s, the PN only lost two points in an election which saw the election of a new mayor, Albert Buttigieg, who distinguished himself by taking a strong stance on environmental issues.

In Nadur, led by former PN minister Chris Said’s brother Edward Said, a popular and effective mayor, the PN even managed to defy the national trend, increasing its majority from 50% to 57%. In Iklin, despite an eight-point drop in turnout the PN managed to retain the same majority as in 2013 and is just one percent down from its result in 2008.

And in a clear indication that the drop in turnout did not unduly penalise the PN is that in Sliema the party actually increased its tally from 66% in 2013 to 70%. This result indicates that the much-feared abstention of anti-Delia PN voters did not materialise in Sliema. Neither did they shift allegiance to the PD, whose candidate failed to get elected.

But the PN’s improved result largely comes as a result of the absence of AD’s Michael Briguglio (who stood as a PN MEP candidate) who had been elected for his fourth term in the council with 8% of the vote in 2013 then as an Alternattiva Demokratika candidate. In fact, Labour has also increased its vote by a percentage point in Sliema while the PD garnered 4% of the vote.

The pattern suggests that the PN is only managing to stop the haemorrhage in more affluent localities that are probably more exposed to the independent media, but is unable to communicate its message outside this restricted constituency.

One sure indication is that even in localities where third parties were present the vote shows no disgruntlement among any significant category of Labour voters. This raises the question whether the PL even has a pale-red category willing to lash out at government in mid-term elections, especially in local elections where one would expect discontentment on environmental issues to surface.

It is also possible that some in this category of Labour voters did not vote. Possibly their abstention left no mark on the result because their impact was offset by an equal number of disgruntled PN voters who also stayed at home.

In this way any message of dissent from these voters failed to reach its destination, being drowned out by the noise of Labour’s victory.

Steve Zammit Lupi
Steve Zammit Lupi

Young, green and independently positive

In an election which saw PD and AD failing to elect any candidates, the election of independent candidate Steve Zammit Lupi in Haz Zebbug with 12% of the vote stood out.

In this locality, the PN declined its share by 14 points while Labour gained three points over 2015, which suggests that Lupi had little impact on Labour’s performance but further weakened the PN.

When his surplus was distributed, 24% of it went to the AD candidate, 60% went to PN candidates and only 17% went to PL candidates.

Zammit Lupi also came across as a likeable charismatic figure, a political trajectory uncannily similar to that of the PD’s Cami Appelgren, who was the most successful third party candidate in MEP elections, apart from Norman Lowell.

Apart from appealing to a PN-leaning category of voters, both adopt a practical approach to environmental issues, leading by example.

While Appelgren’s name is associated with clean-ups, Zammit Lupi is associated with cycling and soft activism in favour of tree protection and mobility issues.

In an indication that he was not perceived as an ‘anti-system candidate’ or a raspberry blown at the political class, none of his votes were non-transferable. This may help him build bridges with the other council members. One factor behind his success is that Zammit Lupi looked smart, was not overtly antagonistic to the status quo while being in synch with popular concerns on overdevelopment and traffic congestion.

But as a model for future third party politics this model may lack the deeper critique of the prevailing economic model, which, for example, characterised the rise of green parties in other European countries.

Another crucial factor in Zammit Lupi’s election was that unlike other third-party candidates he was not alien to the local community, cherishing festa culture and expressing civic pride in the locality’s landmarks, while still being perceived as ‘alternative’ vis-à-vis Malta’s culture of car ownership.

What’s sure is that he was not simply the choice of a distant third party imposed on the locality, but someone who was visible in it.
Moreover, he managed to get elected in a mid-size town which has a rural element and a strong hunting community, but also a considerable number of new arrivals.

His kinship to Zebbug’s last independent mayor, PD leader Godfrey Farrugia, may have also been a factor. For this reason it may well be the case that the word ‘independent’ carries a more positive connotation in this locality than in others.

AD’s failure to elect any of the nine candidates it presented suggests that the party is perceived as a spent force, which may need more than a rebranding exercise to be in a position to attract candidates with strong roots in communities.

Carmel Cacopardo’s failure to get elected from St Julian’s where he garnered just 151 first count votes (4%) despite the pressing environmental issues faced by the locality, is symptomatic of the party’s failure to capitalise on a favourable climate.

In Cacopardo’s case, standing in a locality which is not even his hometown, probably banking on his national profile, may well  have been counter-productive. If anything, Zammit Lupi’s triumph shows the importance of strong community ties in local politics.

The most devastating blow for AD was Ralph Cassar’s close miss in Attard despite reaching the 6% mark, which was still his party’s best shot in these elections. The veteran AD politician had previously won this election three times and was the last standing Green councillor in the country.

The lacklustre AD brand may have also weighed on the prospect of younger candidates who managed to surpass the 4% mark in Marsaskala, Naxxar and Mellieha.

In Mellieha AD also left its mark on a close result nearly costing Labour its victory. Mellieha was one of the few localities in which Labour actually lost support, losing 4 points, while the PN lost only half a point over 2013 figures.

Yet curiously when Luke Caruana was eliminated with 250 (4.4%), the PN still got 40% of his inheritance while Labour only inherited 27%. Caruana’s result was above that gained in 2005 when AD’s candidate garnered just 131 votes.

In Birkirkara, where AD also faced competition from both the PD and the far-right, Anna Azzopardi held on to the penultimate count after increasing her tally from 375 (3%) to a final 499, thanks to 32 votes inherited from Labour, 26 from the PN and 67 from the other parties. In Naxxar, the AD candidate inherited 95 votes from the PN but only 7 votes from Labour to increase his final tally to 443 votes. Yet this was not enough to get them elected.

The PD failed to leave its mark, gaining only 555 votes in seven localities compared to AD’s 2,000 votes in nine localities. The PD achieved its best results in Sliema (4%) and St Paul’s Bay (3%), localities that were not contested by AD.