The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
View E-Paper

Analysis: 7 reasons why Labour lost most of its comfortable lead

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 1 month ago

The result of the European Parliament and local council elections has given a clear message.

It has sent shockwaves through the Labour Party, as it saw its massive majority at EP level wither by four-fifths, dropping from what seemed to be an unassailable 42,000 lead in 2019 to a much weaker 8,400-vote advantage.

The PL then went on to lose more than half of its edge in the local councils race, down from 47,000 in 2019 to 20,000 in 2024, as the shift of balance saw it give up control of five councils to the Nationalist Party – Siggiewi, Mosta, St Paul’s Bay, San Gwann and Msida – while also losing the majority in another four which are now deadlocked – Mellieha, Birkirkara, Floriana and Zebbug (Malta).

Conversely, the results have reinvigorated the PN. For many years and through so much internal tribulations, it appeared lost and unable to even dent the PL’s power. Now that there has been this substantial movement, it can look forward to better days.

In the European Parliament election, Labour obtained 24,000 fewer votes when compared to 2019, with the PN picking up 11,000 more, bridging the gap substantially, while independent candidate Arnold Cassola amassed a whopping 10,000 more votes than he did five years ago. In the previous three EP elections in which Malta elected six representatives, in 2009, 2014 and 2019, Labour obtained 53 or 54% of the votes; now it’s down to 45%.

With regard to local councils, the Labour Party lost 16,000 votes compared to 2019, while the PN gained 11,000 preferences.  The PL is 6% down on its 2019 numbers, while the PN gained 5%.

Things have changed since 8 June. And, mostly, it is Labour’s own doing that its sizeable lead has been slashed so sharply in one fell swoop.

These are seven reasons which contributed to Labour’s decline.

  1. Joseph Muscat case

A former Prime Minister in the dock. A first for Malta. With him, three former ministers and many others, all of whom charged with serious criminal offences related to the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals deal. This followed a court ruling last year which annulled the “fraudulent” agreement reached by the government to transfer the operations of three public hospitals to private companies.

Prime Minister Robert Abela’s strategy was to defend his predecessor, Joseph Muscat. He gave no importance to the content of the inquiry; he simply questioned its timing. He belittled all that was uncovered by the magistrate, choosing to take Muscat’s side – for political reasons, knowing that he cannot ditch Muscat who is still adored by the Labour grassroots.

But this tactic was the wrong one. Abela acted as leader of a political party, rather than a prime minister of the whole country. The grassroots endorsed his stand, like they always do, but a huge chunk of the population did not buy it. Muscat’s arraignment was the last straw. All the wrongdoings under the Labour administration since 2013 had not budged the electorate, which continued to overwhelmingly vote for Labour, giving it massive wins of more than 35,000 votes each time until 2022. But the Muscat case could not be ignored. It could not be swept aside as if nothing had happened.

What was worse was that the Labour Party, Abela included, was behind the mobilisation of the masses to support Muscat on the day he was first arraigned. The scenes in Valletta, of those hundreds showing support to Muscat “irrespective of whether he is guilty or otherwise” did so much harm to Labour. The party has to thank Manuel Cuschieri and Jason Micallef for that.


  1. Robert Abela and the establishment

Abela did much worse than that. He gave birth to the idea that an “establishment” was behind all that was happening against Labour. He nursed the fairy-tale, mentioned it at every opportunity, giving the false impression that there was some kind of hidden hand working against his party. If things weren’t so serious and coming from a Prime Minister, it would have been laughable.

Again, the grassroots believed him, even though they had no idea who or what this establishment was. He repeated the mantra ad nauseam. Like a broken record, it became annoying. When asked to clarify, Abela gave convoluted answers. His target was the judiciary, or some members of it, and the media, or part of it. It certainly was not PBS, which kept on pushing the government agenda.

The Chamber of Advocates, time and again, warned the prime minister not to continue attacking judges and magistrates. Abela’s comments that justice should not be seen a “political terrorism” were not taken kindly by the chamber, and the PM was told to weigh his words more carefully.

In spite of being warned that he was overstepping the limit, he ploughed on believing that by playing the victim he would be attracting the undecided voters. The opposite was happening, as the election results confirmed.


  1. Metsola attack

The Labour Party, spearheaded by Abela, attempted to discredit Roberta Metsola at every opportunity. They cannot accept that fact that the Nationalist MEP was named European Parliament President, a highly prestigious post for her as an individual and for the country in general.

They demonised her, invented stories that she was against peace and in favour of war, that if it was for her Maltese youths would be taking up arms. And the more they attacked her, the more her stature grew, in a positive way, in the eyes of people who think with a mind of their own.

Labour sees Metsola as a threat to its power. The PL knows that she is revered in PN circles.

The way she had refused a handshake with Muscat had resulted in a two-pronged reaction – Labour despised her for her stand and, conversely, admiration towards Metsola multiplied on the Nationalist side of the fence, and not only there. Following that refusal, Metsola had gone on to become EP President while Muscat had resigned and been also named as the Man of the Year for corruption by an international consortium of journalists. That’s the difference between the two.

Labour’s attack did not work. The neutral voters realised her worth even more when Labour targeted her. Metsola has become the candidate to win the highest number of first-preference votes, more than 87,000, which is more than double the quota required to be elected. It’s clear that Labour’s attempt backfired here too.


  1. Goodies

Every government uses power of incumbency to win voters. In this campaign, the Labour government took the practice of pork barrel politics to a new level. It is clear that a plan was drawn up to distribute the goodies on specific days to influence the voting pattern.

The tax refund cheques, the extra cost of living adjustment, the rise in pensions, the money to families where youngsters continue studying, vouchers for pet-lovers, loan schemes for students, money to settle AFM soldiers’ complaints, first-time property buyer cheques and more – all during the five-week campaign. Some of these benefits were delayed to precisely fit in the electoral schedule.

Some are blinded by this. But many others are not, and the election results show it. People saw through Labour’s plan to attempt to sway the vote in its favour. They quietly pocketed the extras, but turned their backs to Labour in the polling booth. Not everyone is bought by a €60 cheque.

Hearing the Prime Minister smugly insist that there is no correlation between the goodies and the election probably pushed many voters not to choose Labour this time round.


  1. Weak team

Labour’s line-up for the election was probably the weakest it has ever had in such elections.

Three of the four sitting MEPs, for different reasons, chose not to contest. Alfred Sant, Josianne Cutajar and Cyrus Engerer were not on the ballot sheet, leaving Alex Agius Saliba as the sole contender vying to retain his seat. Labour voters gave him resounding backing, many of them doing so because he was the only face they knew.

Let us also remember that Miriam Dalli, in 2019, had bagged a massive 63,000 first count votes too. But she was not on the ballot sheet either, as in the meantime she had been called back to base to become a minister.

So, aside from Agius Saliba, Labour had no heavyweights on the list. There were no Edward Sciclunas, Louis Grechs, Joseph Muscats, Marlene Mizzis or, as mentioned earlier, Alfred Sants and Miriam Dallis. This cost Labour many preferences too, as voters could not identify with any of the candidates on the Labour list.


  1. Siggiewi

The attempt to have the addresses of around 100 families transferred to a Siggiewi block that is still uninhabitable was seen by many as Labour’s way to try to win a majority in the locality, where last time it had won by a handful of votes.

No fewer than 22 magistrates ruled in favour of Nationalist Party court cases to annul the change of address. An investigation has also been ordered to see who was responsible for the scheme.

The Prime Minister’s response to this was even more bewildering than the attempt in itself. Rather than admit the PL’s mistake, Abela spoke of persecution by the PN on the families concerned. Such a bizarre way of seeing things, but it was yet another mistake by Abela. His reasoning worked with the diehards, but it was not accepted by voters who think before putting their number 1 preference on the ballot sheet.

That he, then, puts the blame squarely on Housing Minister Roderick Galdes is ludicrous. Abela publicly defended what had been done, but it’s clear that he is not prepared to carry his responsibilities. It’s always someone else’s fault, not his. That’s a mark of an authoritarian.

Siggiewi is now back under PN control. But what happened there before the election did not only affect the way Siggiewi residents voted. It had a much wider effect. It is no wonder that, mockingly, PN delegates thanked Minister Galdes at the counting hall.


  1. Presidential pardon

The Cabinet decided to offer a presidential pardon, with the benediction of the newly-appointed President, to hundreds of people who were caught receiving social benefits they were not entitled to.

Since taking over the reins of the country in 2013, Labour has often been accused of adopting a culture of impunity, an accusation that the PL has always rejected.

But this presidential pardon is the perfect example how Labour embraces this philosophy – instead of using the scandal to instil a better sense of discipline, Labour chose to expunge criminal records of people who stole from the country.

Labour’s reactions to instances where wrong was committed – the driving licences scandal is one other example – often went against what should be the norm.

In choosing to protect the hundreds involved in the social benefits scandal, Labour ended up losing thousands of votes.

  • don't miss