The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Election campaign: A much-awaited debate, a manifesto launch, and some key policy battles

Albert Galea Monday, 14 March 2022, 07:42 Last update: about 10 months ago

The third week of the electoral campaign has come and gone, and with less than two weeks to go until voting day, things are slowly beginning to heat up.

While the electoral campaign remains a largely muted one, at least compared to the high-tension affair that the 2017 campaign was, the past week saw party leaders spar in their much-awaited first debate, and saw some key policy battlegrounds emerge.

Some of these policy battlegrounds include the PL’s metro proposal and the PN’s trackless tram. The PN gave more details about its proposal this past week.

It also saw the launch of the Labour Party’s manifesto – a manifesto which has been the centre of the PN’s own campaigning over the past week, as they claimed that the supposed delay in the publication of the manifesto was because the PL lacked vision and was copying the PN’s ideas.

The PL’s manifesto launch arrived just 15 days before election day on 26 March. Now that both manifestos are published, the electorate will be able to better assess the proposals being made by the two parties.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine continues to overshadow the election. Many of the major issues which are dominating the campaign are centred around the war, such as the impact on the cost of living.

The Malta Independent has taken its weekly deep dive into the five key takeaways from the election campaign this past week.

PL manifesto is finally launched

This week finally saw the launch of the PL’s electoral manifesto.

It is a programme which is, as promised, 1,000 proposals long – although a chunk of them are actually ‘proposals’ which have either already been started during this legislature, or were announced in a past Budget and never really materialised.

On the whole however, as with most manifestos and like the PN’s, the programme offers an interesting and positive vision for the future – although there are some eyebrow-raisers hidden in there, such as a discussion for mandatory trade union membership, which the PL has glossed over thus far.

The launch came just 15 days before election day on 26 March, and only a week before early voting commences, slap-bang in the middle of the short electoral campaign.

While the PN pounced on this for much of the week , going as far as sharing an ad on Facebook which showed Robert Abela putting the PN’s manifesto through a photocopier, this is not a new strategy by any means.

In fact, the PL launched its electoral manifesto midway through the electoral campaign in both 2013 and 2017, employing a similar strategy of revealing the party’s main measures during press conferences earlier in the campaign before going into more detail as the campaign reaches its climax.

It contrasts with the strategy which the PN has employed: the party launched their manifesto 100 hours into the electoral campaign, and has been outlining some of its key measures ever since then, with the trackless tram being the latest this week (more on that later).

Which strategy will work? Survey numbers have not really changed since the PN launched their manifesto, suggesting that the party’s early launch and the PL’s later launch hasn’t made much of a difference.

Then again, though, since when did party manifestos determine who is elected?

The University debate which only reinforced why we need a third party

Of course, the main event of the past week was the University debate.

It was the first leaders’ debate between Bernard Grech and Robert Abela, and probably the first leaders’ debate since Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil sparred in the run-up to the 2017 general election.

Beyond the vastly partisan crowd, however, the debate itself did not result in too many talking points.

Abela and Grech both repeated things which we’ve heard quite a few times before, and both traded barbs which were perfectly predictable.

If anything, it was ADPD leader Carmel Cacopardo who came out looking the best of the bunch in the debate. The Greens leader was praised for his realistic and succinct interventions, with a number of them actually prompting significant applause from an audience which was very much vested in the PN-PL political divide.

Perhaps the pity is that while people like Cacopardo and Cassola before him seem to consistently appear to be the best and most realistic political leaders from these debates – at least in the eyes of many people – those same people don’t take the plunge of actually trusting them with their vote.

ABBA party leader Ivan Grech Mintoff didn’t say many things with a semblance of sense during the debate, but one thing he did say which made sense was his final appeal to people to vote for a third party if they are not happy with the current situation in Maltese politics.

Many people aren’t happy with the duopoly which exists in Maltese politics, and yet the vast majority won’t use their vote to actually change it.

If the debate is any evidence, there’s no better time to trust a third party like ADPD.

War in Ukraine continues to dominate the campaign

The war in Ukraine continues to dominate the electoral discourse, even as the third week comes to a close.

Many of the major issues which are dominating the campaign are centred around the war. While the hubbub around the golden passport scheme has died down since the government’s u-turn decision to stop selling them to Russians, the cost of living impacts that the war will have are not as easy to escape.

Finance Minister Clyde Caruana has said that Malta has already spent €200 million in order to keep prices stable as they explode elsewhere in Europe.

How parties will handle the cost of living issue, which was already an issue before the war in Ukraine broke out, and the product shortages which may come about owing to the war, could make or break campaigns, particularly if prices start to increase in the immediate time before the election.

There has also been criticism in some sectors regarding how the government has handled its humanitarian response to the war, particularly as Ukrainians are still expected to spend 14 days in quarantine at their own expense, and over apparent threats and warnings to the Ukrainian community not to associate with NGOs such as Repubblika, who have organised a number of protests and demonstrations in solidarity with Ukraine.

Bernard Grech has tried to capitalise on the government’s response to the war, with the latest attempt coming on Thursday during the University debate, where he used part of his closing address to propose a day-long stop to the electoral campaign and for all parties to come together in a peace march for Ukraine.

Robert Abela did not respond to the request, and the peace march never happened.

It would have been nice had it actually happened, particularly as matters such as a general election campaign seem trivial when there is a war taking place in Europe, and particularly as more and more images of the devastation emerge, and it’s a pity that Abela did not agree to the event, which could have served as a rare moment when the political party divide is swept aside to come together for something bigger.

But alas, tribalism rules supreme once more.

Key policy battle: PL throw their weight behind sexual health

Over the past week, the PL has taken the politically wise course of action of placing emphasis on an area where the PN has always been notoriously weak: sexual health.

The party promised earlier in the week that it would make the Morning After Pill available for free at pharmacies and health centres, that it would make the contraceptive pill free, and that it would reduce the VAT on menstrual products to the lowest permissible amount established by the EU.

Furthermore, though this is not a sexual health issue per se, the party has proposed legal amendments to open up the possibility of IVF to more and more people – and it has based a lot of its criticism of the PN this week on its response to the proposals on IVF.

This is an area where the PL will always have the upper hand on the PN, particularly when it comes to credibility.

The PN may have made some of these same proposals a year or so ago, but the fact remains that its identity as a traditionally conservative party – an identity it still has in part due to the philosophies of some of its present MPs – will never put it up to scratch with the PL’s more progressive identity when it comes to matters like this.

This is what makes the PL’s decision to put so much focus on the matter of sexual health a good political decision.

Key policy battle: The Metro or the Trackless Tram

Towards the end of the week, the PN placed more focus on its own flagship proposal: the trackless tram.

In two separate press conferences, the PN explained how its proposal for a mass transport system would cost €2.8 billion and would be completed by 2027.

The proposal would have six circular routes covering 48 different localities around Malta, and each tram would carry between 300 and 500 people in one go.

The party has made efforts to compare the system with that being pushed by the PL, which is the metro which was announced late last year.

To justify the project the PN is insisting that the project is much cheaper, will take much less time to build, will have more coverage in terms of localities, will have less of an environmental impact, and will be more flexible if any changes are required.

All of those points, when compared to the studies which the government had commissioned for the metro, are valid.

Robert Abela has tried to play down the proposal as something of a glorified bendy-bus, harking back to the much maligned years when Arriva took over Malta’s public transport system – but it’s weak criticism when one actually delves into the PN’s plans. On balance, it appears that when it comes to the politics on mass transport, the PN has the upper hand.

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