Times of Malta, Monday, April 20, 2015
Analysts warn: Labour’s cracks beginning to form
by Claudia Calleja
The local council elections suggest cracks have appeared within the Labour Party, giving the struggling Nationalist Party a ray of hope, according to several political analysts.
“The Nationalist Party made satisfactory gains within the context of a Labour majority. It is crystal clear that Labour is still ahead but the PN did make some inroads. I would agree that the PN is back in business,” independent observer Michael Briguglio said.
Martin Scicluna, another observer, agreed: “The huge gap is narrowed and the PN can take consolation from that. Simon Busuttil has a slender hope that things may be turning in the Nationalists’ favour. To Joseph Muscat the message is: ‘You are not invincible and a lot can happen’.”
Labour won 54 per cent of the votes in the local elections, held in 34 localities (half of the total 68) and the PN got 45 per cent, closing the 17-point gap of three years ago to nine.
When the results were announced, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said his party, which lost the 2013 general elections by 36,000 votes, was “back in business”.
The Prime Minister said the results showed a “massive vote of confidence” halfway through his Labour government’s term.
But Dr Briguglio, a sociologist, university lecturer and former chairman of green party Alternattiva Demokratika, feels that while results do show the PL is still ahead, it lost ground to the PN, perhaps due to overconfidence.
He cautioned that one had to keep in mind the dynamics of local council elections, which, as opposed to general elections, have a strong local and personal element that allow voters to be more adventurous.
In this case, the mobilisation of voters for the spring hunting referendum worked in Labour’s favour and one had to remember that this round of local elections had largely taken place in Labour-leaning localities.
Yet, the PN still managed to narrow the gap. One should not underestimate protest voting, common in local elections, to send a message to the government.
“All this shows that even though Joseph Muscat is very, very popular, there might be some cracks within the Labour majority and some things might be changing. I think Simon Busuttil managed to make some form of impact, even if there is still a long way to go. There is a glimmer of hope,” he said.
Political analyst Hermann Schiavone – who was elected to the Birżebbuġa council on a PN ticket – said this was the first time in this legislature that the government had experienced protest votes, which included invalid votes and votes for the PN. This had not been the case during last year’s MEP elections.
“We are starting to see the first cracks and this is very normal. The message to Joseph Muscat is that he remains popular but the aura he had, that he is invincible, is ending,” Dr Schiavone, who has a PhD in political science and whose thesis was entitled ‘The single transferable vote (STV) system and its consequences for representation – the case of Malta’, said.
He added that both parties had achieved their targets, with the PL retaining a majority and the PN narrowing the gap.
Mr Scicluna, a former government adviser on defence matters, agreed that both parties have something to take away from the results.
While people should not read too much into the results – since the “councils remain the same in terms of Nationalist and Labour councils on the ground” – there are the underlying messages, “which a wise politician will take note of”.
Labour MP Marlene Farrugia, known to be critical of her own party, is also seeing cracks.
While retaining 54 per cent of the votes was a good mid-term result for Labour, the Prime Minister should recognise the need to act and stem the haemorrhage of PL votes, she said, mentioning as examples the outcomes in Paola, Santa Luċija, Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa.
“Environmental concerns are only the tip of the iceberg of concerns... The people are getting disenchanted with the government and its tactics... Regarding the PN, they have certainly achieved a very positive result and have thrown a light on the cracks appearing in the workings of this young government,” she said.
In the opinion of former PN Siġġiewi mayor Robert Musumeci, who switched to Labour, the local elections results showed a “systematic redistribution” of the 2013 general election trends, which, this time round, were evidently conditioned by the referendum vote.
Results showed that, in some localities, Labour should engage better with its traditional electorate.
While one could not discard the PN’s claims to success, “its success ultimately depends on beating Muscat’s ‘invincible’ formula in the creation of a movement which goes beyond traditional party affiliation,” he said.