The Malta Independent 15 August 2020, Saturday

Voter indifference likely to lead to lowest election turnout in 50 years

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 2 August 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 13 days ago

Malta has witnessed 12 elections since it became an independent nation in 1964.

It was only in the first of these, held in 1966, that fewer than 90 per cent of the eligible voters cast their preference.

As from the subsequent election in 1971, it has happened every time that more than 90 per cent exercised their right to vote.

As one can see from the table below, voter participation was even higher than 95 per cent in five successive elections starting in 1987 and ending in 2003, an election which was held just after the European Union referendum, and which sanctioned the people’s vote in favour of membership.

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According to the Electoral Commission website, the percentage then fell to 93.3 per cent in 2008, dropped further to 93 per cent in 2013 and dipped to 92.1 per cent in the last election held in 2017. This was the second lowest voter turnout since Independence, after the initial 89.7 per cent reached in 1966.

So much has happened in the last three years to lead one to think that it is most likely that the turnout of voters will be lower than it was in 2017 when Prime Minister Robert Abela decides to call an election. It is possible, perhaps likely, that the percentage will go below the 90 per cent figure for the first time in more than half a century.

There are various reasons for this.

There is a general disillusionment about the current political class. The two major parties have passed through or are facing turmoil, for different reasons, and the small parties still do not inspire too much confidence. So it should not come as a surprise if a sizeable chunk of voters decides not to bother voting – which would be a message in itself, one that expresses disdain towards the current crop of politicians, whichever party they represent.

There could then be others who choose to voluntarily invalidate their vote. The number of invalid votes has been around 1% of the total votes cast in the last four elections but, again, this could see a rise given that some people would prefer to invalidate their vote rather than not vote at all. This would be because they fear some repercussions, considering that political parties get to know who voted and who did not.

But, judging by what has happened in previous elections, there will be people who will manifest their outright scorn at the whole spectrum of politicians by not voting. And, although there will be people who traditionally vote Labour among those who will choose not to visit the polling booth, the vast majority of the non-voters will come from the Nationalist side.

This has already been experienced in the 2019 MEP and local council elections, when many voters in traditional PN strongholds decided to abstain, with the result that the PN lost the majority in some councils and seats in others. It is probable, as things stand now, that something similar will happen in the general election, and this will greatly contribute to yet another record victory for the Labour Party.

 

The Labour Party

The Labour Party has not been free of scandals, which started before the last election but spilled onto the current one. So much so that it was only six months ago that it had to go through the process to elect a new leader (and prime minister) and just last week it elected its new deputy leader for party affairs.

Robert Abela and Daniel Micallef respectively replaced Joseph Muscat and Chris Cardona, both of whom were forced to abandon their roles in the wake of developments in connection with the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Muscat resigned after his office was linked to the murder, while Cardona left after his name was mentioned in court proceedings related to the case.

Any other party in power would have lost support because of this, but with the current main opposition party in total disarray, the Labour Party remains strongly ahead according to recent surveys. Not even the kicking out of Konrad Mizzi from the parliamentary group has seemingly dented Labour’s popularity.

Generally speaking, Labour supporters rally behind the party they support once decisions are taken, especially if they come from the leadership. How they reacted to the Konrad Mizzi situation is the perfect example. One day they were fully behind him and the next they kicked him out. Once that choice had been made, there was no turning back. Joseph Muscat defended Mizzi, and so Labour supporters defended him too. Once Robert Abela showed Mizzi the door, then they were ready to accompany him out of the PL headquarters once and for all.

So it will take much more than this for a Labour supporter to shun his party on the day of the election. There will be some who are too disgruntled to show their support with their vote, but in the majority of cases, a Labour supporter’s love for the party and the possibility of a third straight record victory will outweigh the urge to stay away.

The Nationalist Party

The situation here is completely different.

The last three years have exposed a huge division within the party. The PN has not settled under the leadership of Adrian Delia. It is said that he failed to unite the party, but his supporters argue that he was never given the chance, with so many detractors who form part of the parliamentary group and occupy top places in the party structure working against him, right from the very first day.

This division has filtered down to the grassroots, and now PN supporters are themselves divided between those who back their current leader and the rest who oppose him. It is therefore no wonder that surveys have regularly shown that the PN trails Labour by a big margin.

The party is now facing a crossroads. The decision taken yesterday by the general council will be followed by a convention that is to determine the way forward, but whatever happens will inevitably create deeper wounds. There will be repercussions either way – whether Delia retains his seat as party leader, or has to concede it to a new leader.

The losers of this internal battle will swallow a bitter pill. There is also a possibility of a split, which will only favour the Labour Party. But if, somehow, the PN will trudge on as one bloc in spite of the disharmony, the likelihood is that there will be many traditional PN voters who will not turn up at the polling booth. If Delia is pushed aside, some of his supporters will refrain from voting; if he stays on, the same will happen on the other side.

A split could also mean that people who normally vote PN will abstain. They will never vote Labour, are unhappy with the situation within the PN, and so their decision will be to stay home.

The small parties

The small parties, in spite of their good intentions, have not made any significant headway among the voters.

If anything, they have lost more support since the last election, when the newly set-up Partit Demokratiku had joined forces with the Nationalist Party in what was then known as the Forza Nazzjonali, and ended up with two seats in the House of Representatives. Those seats, occupied by Godfrey Farrugia and Marlene Farrugia, have since been lost as the two have become independent MPs and will not be seeking re-election. Without the Farrugias, the PD is less appealing.

The same goes for Alternattiva Demokratika, which since the last election in 2017 has lost its most prominent member. Arnold Cassola left the party he once led and in the 2019 MEP election ended up obtaining more votes on his own than the two AD representatives put together.

There is now talk of PD and AD merging into one, and although this pooling of resources will help in administrative matters, this will not necessarily translate into votes. It is more likely that a voter who normally votes Labour or PN to abstain completely rather than give a vote to a candidate representing the small parties.

 

These are the official turnouts for all the elections since Independence

1966: 89.7% – PN

1971: 92.9% – Labour

1976: 94.9% – Labour

1981: 94.6% – Labour

1987: 96.1% – PN

1992: 96.1% – PN

1996: 96.3% – Labour

1998: 95.4% – PN

2003: 95.7% – PN

2008: 93.3% – PN

2013: 93% – Labour

2017: 92.1% – Labour

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