The main objective for every political party is to try and convince the electorate that they should be voting for ‘them’.
Politics in all truth is a complex mind game and the scenario is often dictated and influenced by incidental and rapidly changing circumstances. Political parties ‘today’, more than ever, need to keep an ear to the ground to understand how the citizens are reacting to the positions they and their counterparts are taking.
For almost a quarter of a century the PN seemed to have a hold on the electorate. This party managed to read the signs and strike a chord. Together with excellently organized party machinery, strong leadership, and one over-arching cause after another the party looked unassailable. Then again in terms of margins, if one had to discount the peculiar situation in the 1998 election, which saw a significant swing of voters moving back to the PN after they had voted-in the ‘MLP’, even when the PN had such a sound cause, they only managed decent leads.
I suppose that parties know that in ordinary circumstances our electoral make-up is engineered in a way to encourage people to choose between two polarities and margins are almost always very slim. Parties know that they need to consolidate their die-hards, try to get their hands on as many first time voters as possible and after that it is mostly up to the floaters.
In the last general election something very anomalous happened. The swing and consequently ‘the majority’ was considerable and possibly should ring an alarm bell for both parties, yes both parties.
Why is this the case?
As far as the PN is concerned, the analysis might seem pretty obvious. The past election has shown that this party did not just lose a couple of disgruntled supporters who were irritated at the Gonzi leadership. I believe that the emphatic PL victory was due to a mass exodus of a number of trusty ‘blocs’ that for years had been devoted to the PN. What seems to have happened during the last election seems to suggest the hoary expression, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and interest groups representing masses of people shifted allegiances. Somehow, the feel good factor that the Nationalist fashioned for so many years had vanished. My take on this one is that if the PN strategists simply interpret this as voter quavering come the next ballot they will have (another) bolt from the blue.
I think that what the PL managed to do was to provide the legroom for such ‘populations’.
On the other hand, I honestly think that if the PL is not vigilant the outcome from the 2013 election can also work to the detriment of this party.
The basic premise here is that even though our system has been designed to make it easy for a two-party system, both the PN and PL can consider themselves parties of coalitions. The challenge they both need to face is which party will manage to create the best ambiance for the respective interest groups.
Most probably, more than in other elections, the voting base of the PN and PL will have to be informed from particular populations which I will name just a few;
The first-time voters are always a Pandora box.
Probably in the last election, this group was drawn in their droves by Dr Joseph Muscat, a generally unknown quantity but a good campaigner, young and dynamic and in their eyes unsullied to the political scene. This time round Simon Busuttil and Joseph Muscat will both be competing for their votes, both seasoned politicians in a way, even though comparatively young. These are the voters who do not know the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s context and so cannot be drawn into that milieu of the hardcore ‘partitarji’.
Another important group of voters is those born in the 1960s and 1970s that were comfortable forming part of the PN because of the political scenario in the 80s, who felt reassured with the leadership of Dr Eddie Fenech Adami and his team. The people in this generation of voters may not have all been PN sympathizers but felt comfortable enough to dream about liberty, about Europe, about a decent modern quality of life based on social justice, righteousness and the rule of law. All these aspirations have been fulfilled. This electorate base is up for grabs and there for the taking.
Another significant chunk of the coalition is made up of the working-class.
This is a cluster that is often alienated due to the challenges they need to face day-in day-out to make ends meet. The PL in Government has endeavored to provide improved benefits, free childcare services and to combat precarious employment conditions. This will make it very difficult for them to go back to the PN. In truth, the PN never really connected with this group in spite of the fact that they were the spine of the resistance in particular in the south of Malta back in the 80s. This group of people seem to have gone back “home”, finding comfort in the Labour Party. What Fenech Adami managed to do was make them feel they are a weighty ingredient of the Nationalist Party whilst Gonzi, I believe, didn’t do enough to keep them there, too busy sorting out his back bench, the country’s financial woes and the Libyan crises.
But I believe that an important battle ground remains the ninth and tenth districts.
The PN has to recuperate big time whilst the PL has a big test to maintain the inroads it managed to make. The voters who traditionally come from the ninth and tenth district have a strong “Stricklandian” sympathy probably better known as the business class. They are essentially liberal in thought and lifestyles. The bond that the PL created with the business class, the healthy financial situation of the country, the fact that the private sector is growing fast (as Professor Josef Bonnici, the Governor of the Central Bank indicated during my programme ‘Ghandi xi Nghid’ last Saturday) make it an uphill struggle for the PN to regain intensity in these districts.
The ninth and tenth districts even though highly critical when the PN went off track were still reasonably loyal. This time round it seemed that this faithfulness has fizzled out. It is a well-established fact that the PN is extremely dependent on these two districts not only because of the votes that they generate but because they represent the PN stronghold.
Whilst having this group return to the PN is very difficult it is equally challenging for the PL to maintain the space for this community when the PL is now representing so many diverse groups with very different lifestyles under its umbrella, even though the ‘moviment tal-Progressivi u l-Moderati’ is no longer trending.
Another significant group that is struggling with the PN is the Catholic conservatives.
It seems that such a group may have lost a bit of ground in terms of numbers but is still strongly represented in the Nationalist Party structures. An implicit effort seems to be taking place in the PN to give less and less importance to this faction. Despite this, no concerted effort has been dedicated by the PL to draw these people into their party. Joseph Muscat, speaking on secularization on a regular basis and emphasizing the need for a clear distinction between the State and the Church has obviously left this group feeling rather isolated.
Another significant group is the ‘extreme’ right bloc that seems to be growing slowly but surely especially now that there is an Islamic fundamentalist threat hovering around the Mediterranean.
The PN and PL seem to go half-way on this group with Joseph Muscat seemingly more open to push-backs and other draconian stances vis-a-vie immigration. More than anything, this group of people is in no man’s land and until the numbers are what they are I cannot envisage that there will be too much of a tussle for this cluster.
Undoubtedly there is a significant part of the electorate that is motivated by identity politics (gay community, animal rights activists, persons with disability, environmentalists, among others) who seem to have shifted to the PL. They are a group that were disengaged by the PN in the last five years they were in power, and seem to be ‘heading back to their natural home’.
The way I see it, the strength of the PN is when over-arching issues are the rule of the day because the PN seems to attract the electorate when the going gets tough.
On the other hand the PL has managed to create a micro-political strategy that is based on opinion polls and people confidence ratings. So far, it has managed to appease and conciliate the different segments even because Joseph Muscat has a great ability in terms of managing under duress. What works in the Government’s favour is the fact that there is a general sense of well-being in the country. Then again, this Government is very dependent on Joseph Muscat’s resolve. When things start slipping through his fingers I’m not sure there is a Plan B.
With people being essentially interested in achieving their own personal ambitions it makes it increasingly difficult for the PN to make inroads unless the all embracing issue pops up.
On the other hand, the challenge in the next three years for the PL is to manage to keep equilibrium within the party and to administer this large majority. Interesting times lie ahead!