The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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TMIS Editorial: Messages from the elections

Sunday, 23 June 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 24 days ago

The local councils map is no longer as red as it used to be.

When the 2019 elections were held, the Labour Party had amassed a whopping 47,000 majority that enabled it to take over huge chunks of the island, even in localities that were not traditionally supportive to its policies.

But this dramatically changed earlier this month, as the Nationalist Party has eaten into Labour’s lead, bridging the gap substantially to reduce it to 20,000 votes, less than half what it used to be. In the process, the PN flipped five councils in its favour, while another four where the PL held a majority became deadlocked as no party won more than half the seats available. It was more than the PN was hoping for, especially given the way surveys continued to predict Labour to win by margins similar to the ones we have had in the last 15 years.

Although Labour’s lead here is much higher than the 8,400 gap that was registered in the European Parliament election, the local councils’ outcome confirmed a trend that Labour has lost popularity and, conversely, the PN has gained.

When one also takes into consideration the fact that, in several localities where the PL remained in control of the council, it lost a seat to the PN, it becomes even clearer that the way people voted on 8 June is significantly different from the way they voted five years ago.

The results have given the Nationalist Party a renewed sense of purpose. For years, it lost more and more confidence in between one election and another because the distance between the two parties remained the same or even widened. This was happening at a time when the government was embroiled in one scandal after another. Yet, the electorate had continued to give Labour massive wins which solidified its position, while continuing to weaken the PN, which for a long time was doing harm to itself in the way it had allowed internal squabbles to fester.

Now, after 8 June, the PN can look forward to better times and is now more optimistic. It has been given a renewed energy which should be transformed into an even bigger challenge to the Labour government in the second half of the legislature. In the interview PN leader Bernard Grech gave to this newspaper this week, he said that the party achieved all its goals in the 8 June elections – and it has now set itself an even bigger target for when the general election is held. The PN is now in a position to really believe it can do it.

Conversely, this has been a wake-up call for the Labour Party. It has been given the chance to redeem. All elections send messages. In the past 15 years Labour has always been comfortable in the knowledge that it has a significant advantage, one that it could play around with in the sense that it could afford measures that might have led to a loss of votes while still retaining power. Now it can no longer make the same argument, because the distance between the two parties has been bridged substantially. If the EP result were to be replicated at the general election level, the PL would not retain the nine-seat majority it secured in 2022.

In a way, the drop in popularity could serve the Labour Party positively, enabling it to mend its ways before the country goes to the polls again. Hopefully, it will not resort to an even stronger use of its power of incumbency. The way it did so in the last election campaign was outrageously obvious to the point that it somehow backfired. The PL should realise that the people are not stupid; or, better, not all people are swayed with a cheque.

Worse than this, its strategy to keep energy prices low – a populist move to keep consumers (families and businesses happy) – could come back to haunt it. This week, we had the European Union once again pointing this out to the government. For the umpteenth time, the EU has called on the government to gradually eliminate the subsidies that have kept the price of power and fuel stable in spite of the rise on the international market. In its official reply, the government completely ignored the EU’s recommendation but, sooner or later, it will have to answer.

It also seems that the Labour government – or at least some of its members – has not taken the lesson. The way the Transport Minister, Chris Bonett, last week avoided answering legitimate parliamentary questions about road projects smacked of total arrogance.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has said that the party needs to be more humble in its approach. His ministers should be the first to take the cue.


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