The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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Could the PN become a victim of Metsola’s success?

Albert Galea Sunday, 25 February 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The European Parliament elections are drawing closer, and while a lot is at stake for the Labour Party in what can be considered as a mid-term litmus test for Robert Abela’s administration – there is equally a lot stake for the Nationalist Party.

The past decade for the PN has been one characterised by landslide electoral defeats and internal strife which at times risked completely splitting the party.  It now approaches the June MEP election hoping for a result that gives it more confidence.

Their field of candidates thus far is an eclectic mix of experience and new faces: Roberta Metsola – now European Parliament President – and David Casa – Malta’s longest serving MEP – both  will contest again. They are joined by Peter Agius – who has effectively been in electoral campaign mode for the last six years – and veteran MP David Agius.

New candidates Norma Camilleri, LouiseAnne Pulis, Lee Bugeja Bartolo, and Miriana Testaferrata de Noto complete the ballot sheet.

The presence of Roberta Metsola – whose rise in stature in the last European legislature has been meteoric – is no doubt a boon for the PN as it aims no doubt to win a third seat in Brussels; a third seat which they only won once – in 2014.

But could the presence of the person who Lawrence Gonzi described in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday as a “jewel” for the PN be something of a double-edged sword for the party’s quest for that seat?

A record-setter in waiting?

That question is not being posed in any way to suggest that the PN would be better off with Metsola not contesting June’s elections: quite on the contrary, the party would be far worse off without its talisman on the ballot sheet.

Such is Metsola’s popularity and stature that she may well be expected to break the record for the amount of first count votes ever polled by a single candidate.

That record is currently held by Simon Busuttil, who attracted a huge 68,782 votes in the 2009 MEP elections.

This tally has not been exceeded since: Miriam Dalli, for Labour, came closest during the last MEP elections in 2019, as she attracted 63,438 votes.

Nobody else has come remotely close: Alfred Sant attracted 48,739 votes in 2014, Metsola herself polled at 38,206 votes in 2019, and Joseph Muscat ‘only’ managed to muster 36,958 votes when he contested in 2004.

In fact Busuttil himself holds the third highest tally ever polled too: 58,899 votes in the 2004 MEP elections.

There is however talk that Busuttil’s record may be beaten by Metsola in June.  Her popularity amongst PN voters is certainly not in question, and her international stature may also attract the ‘1’ vote of some voters from other parties – cross party voting after all is a far more prevalent phenomenon in MEP elections than it is in general elections.

The thing possibly holding a new record back from happening is the predicted record abstention rate: the latest MaltaToday poll predicts a 62.5% turnout, with the PN losing 22.7% of its voters in the 2022 general election to abstention – which is much lower than the 34.2% that the PL are predicted to lose to the same phenomenon, but still a significant chunk.

But record or not, Metsola still appears odds on to attract the lion’s share of the PN’s vote.

An electoral quirk

This is where the problem may come for the PN.

Malta’s electoral system is quite a particular one, with the electorate being able to vote for multiple candidates, going numerically in order of preference.

While a voter’s 2s, 3s, and so on carry great importance, particularly when the counting enters the 25th or 30th round, it is the number of 1s which ranks the candidates.

That ranking is important when it comes to determining who is eliminated from the running as the counting rounds go on: under the Maltese electoral system, the candidate/s who exceed/s the quota has the extra votes distributed among the rest, following which it is the candidate with the least amount of votes tallied under their name which is eliminated after each count.

Now the potential problem on the PN’s hands lies in this principle: one star candidate taking the lion’s share of the vote for one party would leave the rest of that party’s candidates with a far less vote count to their name than the candidates of another party where the votes may be better spread out.

In effect, if Metsola pools the vast majority of the PN’s votes, then it would leave every other candidate relying on how her extra votes are redistributed.  If there is a clear second preference after Metsola – which there might well be, considering that the PN’s other current MEP David Casa is also contesting – then this would leave the other candidates with few votes, with the result that it increases the likelihood that they are eliminated.

This would effectively mean that when push comes to shove, the PN candidates could get knocked out earlier than the PL candidates, who are running in a field without a specifically defined ‘star candidate’ like Miriam Dalli or Alfred Sant were (although that may change if Joseph Muscat were to decide to contest).

This in turn may prove to have a deciding impact on which party the final Brussels seat goes to.

The 2009 example

This all may sound a bit difficult and hypothetical to wrap one’s head around, but we do actually have an example of exactly this happening from the 2009 MEP election.

This was the first election in which Malta elected six MEPs (only five were elected in the first election in 2004).

The first count vote tally across the board exhibited the scenario explained earlier in this article: Simon Busuttil achieved his record-setting 68,782 votes – which made up 68.4% of all of the votes which the PN received.

The second best candidate was David Casa with 6,539 votes, followed by Roberta Metsola with 5,880 votes, and Marthese Portelli with 5,245 votes.

Conversely, the Labour Party had six candidates all tally over 12,000 first count votes: Louis Grech (27,753), Edward Scicluna (24,574), Joseph Cuschieri (19,672), Marlene Mizzi (17,724), John Attard Montalto (12,880), and Claudette Abela Baldacchino (12,309).

Busuttil comfortably reached the necessary quota, and he had 27,420 votes to be redistributed.  15,240 of those went to David Casa putting him on 21,779 votes – but out of the remaining candidates, Metsola ranked highest with 9,772 votes, still far below the top six PL candidates.

By the time the last of the small party candidates was eliminated on the 22nd count, the PL had yet to officially elect a candidate and Casa was yet to hit the quota, but Metsola was still behind all six of the remaining PL candidates.

By the 25th count, the PN only had Casa and Metsola in the running (together with Busuttil who had been elected already) while the PL still had its six best performing candidates in the race.

Casa stood on 38,231 votes – just 3,000 or so votes short of the quota – but with only Metsola left other than him on the PN’s side, there were only two possibilities: either he gets an uncharacteristically large swing of votes from an eliminated PL candidate, or he would get elected at Metsola’s expense, leaving the PN with just two seats out of six.

The latter is in effect what happened: Claudette Abela Baldacchino was eliminated for the PL, but the vote transfer was such that Metsola was eliminated next.  That meant that Casa reached the vote quota and secured his seat – but that the PN had no candidates left to contest in the race for another seat, and there was therefore nowhere blue for the 15,157 surplus votes that Casa now had under his name after reaching the quota to go.

This left five PL candidates fighting between themselves for four remaining seats.  Such was the voter spread among them that all four seats were taken by candidates who didn’t even reach the quota.

One can argue that the 4-2 split in the PL’s favour in 2009 was a given considering that the party won the election by 35,431 votes: but the PN won that final seat for a 3-3 draw in the 2014 elections five years later, despite losing that election by a very similar 33,677 votes.

Ironically in that election it was the PL which had the ‘star candidate’ element on its side in the form of Alfred Sant, who pooled 48,739 votes and immediately hit the quota necessary to be elected.

In the case of that election, by the time the final small party candidate was eliminated in the 20th count, both the PN and PL had five candidates each still in the running for four seats (Sant and Metsola had been elected by this point) – and with competition going until the end, it was Therese Comodini Cachia who won the 6th seat for the PN by just 206 votes.

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