The Labour Party has just won a second landslide victory after a hard-fought election campaign one year before its time, despite escalating corruption scandals affecting the highest echelons of the government. The short campaign emboldened Nationalist supporters leading many to think that there was a strong chance for a PN victory. So what went wrong? Here are some of the key factors that contributed to a Nationalist defeat.
1. A one-issue campaign
The Nationalist Party’s campaign focused on the single issue of corruption which means that if this argument did not resonate with the voter, it became difficult to buy into the PN’s narrative. Worse still, the PN did not provide a convincing enough plan to fight corruption beyond reducing the powers of the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, anybody who benefitted from the Labour government may have feared they would have something to lose by electing the Nationalist Party. The corruption narrative also forced the PN to come across as negative, which is always a difficult platform to campaign upon.
2. No Egrant documents
The Egrant allegations made by blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia triggered the snap election. But since no documents were actually ever published, many voters were unable to vote on the basis of this new development. Joseph Muscat’s insistence that he would resign if any evidence against him was found, helped his argument, while Simon Busuttil’s reluctance to put his own neck on the line was unconvincing.
3. Starting from a major disadvantage
Besides having lost the election by 36,000 only four years ago, PN was further weakened by the fact that much of its scaremongering failed to materialise. Simon Busuttil himself was one of the major PN exponents who in 2013 argued that Labour won’t work and would result in a bailout. The fact that these past four years affected so many people so positively meant that Labour’s lead was likely to have grown over the past four years, possibly reaching 50,000 at one point, meaning the sheer number PN had to overcome was too big to achieve during a short five-week campaign.
4. Paying for past mistakes
Clearly four years was not enough to make the electorate forget the reasons the previous PN administration was voted out in a historic landslide. PN’s reputation for bad governance, corruption, environmental degradation and illiberal policies were still too fresh in people’s memories to buy into the idea of another Nationalist government.
5. A poor start
Simon Busuttil always compared his election bid to a marathon. But the finish line appeared one year earlier than expected and while Labour was clearly prepared with a full campaign on day one, PN had to play catchup and it took a few weeks to put on a fight of any conviction. This meant that while it was still fighting for its hardcore and publishing its manifesto, Labour was already able to reach out to switchers. And while Labour had already oiled its strong electoral machine, PN struggled to get its machine working in time.
6. Reliance on ‘divisive’ elements
The fact that divisive characters like blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, David Thake, Salvu Mallia and Marlene Farrugia were so central to the PN campaign, created a major stumbling block for anybody who had been at the receiving end of criticism by these exponents.
7. An unconvincing team
PN argued that this was not an election between Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil. However, the only person the PN pushed forward was Busuttil and he was unable to present a convincing team which could make up an effective Cabinet.
8. Arrogant Nationalist supporters
Nationalist supporters may have been their worst enemies since they became so persuaded that they were on the right side of history that instead of being empathetic with undecided voters, they were overly aggressive, arrogant and forceful. E.g. “If you can’t see what’s wrong, you’re dumb.” The holier than thou attitude did not resonate with the more moderate Maltese.
9. A coalition without much direction
The coalition would have been convincing if it emerged as a true liberal party that could hold PN to account on key pledges such as those on civil liberties. This would have started to make up for decisions by Simon Busuttil to have conservative candidates like Josie Muscat. Without an ideological push, the coalition came across as haphazard and unnecessary.
10. Joseph Muscat’s cult status
If there’s one person who should be credited with this victory, it’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat whose cult status has been cemented in this campaign. His captivating speeches certainly helped bring the vote out in a big way. And his charisma was constantly compared to that of Simon Busuttil who simply did not exude the same magnetism. Labour also put forward a convincing plan that gave Muscat more to talk about, while Busuttil’s narrative became nauseatingly repetitive.
11. PN’s inability to credit Labour with success
The Nationalist Party was reluctant to accept the good aspects of a Labour government. It was only on the last few days of the campaign that the PN put up a billboard promising to “strengthen the good”. If this message was PN’s from the outset, it could have been a different outcome.
12. The real motivations of the 36,000
While the Nationalist Party likes to think that the 36,000 voted for good governance and against corruption, it is now becoming increasingly clear that these voters were actually motivated by a range of different issues, including economic reasons. Clearly, people had felt the PN government had stagnated the economy while the change in direction brought about by Labour yielded tangible results. The need for social mobility was sorely underestimated by the Nationalist Party.
Simon Busuttil made several mistakes in his career as PN leader, but one key aspect was his inability to reach out to true Labourites and his penchant for distancing them from him by saying things like how he wants to make the government “Labourproof”. This made Labourites fear a PN government and rally behind the PL leader.
BONUS: The power of incumbency
When a party is in government, it has the power to do things that could please undecided voters, including handing out promotions, payouts and favours, or making up for injustices and mistakes. This is something all governments have been accused of in the past, including PN administrations.