This year’s traditional election leaders’ debate at the Univeristy of Malta might not come to pass in its usual format. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has announced a scheduling clash, and confirmed that he would be unable to attend the event.
If the debate isn’t moved (it’s meant to be happening on Tuesday 16th May), then it will be the first time out of three consecutive election debates that it goes ahead without all the party leaders present. PN leader Simon Busuttil, Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Arnold Cassola, and Partit Demokratiku leader Marlene Farrugia have all confirmed that they’ll be part of it.
Both the 2008 and 2013 leaders’ debates turned out to be lively, spirited, and even explosive at times. Anyone who’s ever attended will attest to the palpable political engagement, inevitable partisan audience interaction, and agility with which the leaders must navigate the terrain of student concerns.
Here’s why the cancellation of a full-blown leaders’ debate will be a loss to this year’s electoral campaign.
1. Students make up a healthy percentage of the electorate
In 2016, Malta’s demographics showed that 11.84% of the population were made up of people aged between 15 to 24 – around 49K. If you consider the fact that the Labour Party won the last election by 36K votes, even half, or a third, of that demographic could make a significant impact to this election.
This means students are a super important part of the electorate. They’re also the people who are definitely going to be affected by the imminent outcome. Their voice needs to be heard and their questions answered.
2. Progressive issues and concerns are usually at the forefront of the debate
Students by nature are young and concerned with a future that is reflective of their emerging needs and moral desires. So the discussion in the University debates is often focuses on more progressive issues – meaning it’s likely that the discussion points in these debates are often the issues that will become prevalent in the near future.
In the 2013 debate civil unions were a big part of the discussion, shedding better light on were each of the leaders planned to steer the country’s direction on that front. Joseph Muscat came out strong, and four years later the progression of civil liberties remains a keystone success for his time in office.
On the other hand, also in 2013, Lawrence Gonzi was taken to task on the issue of divorce – with students asking how they could “trust him after he voted against the divorce legislation?”. The subject of decriminalisation of cannabis was also approached in the 2013 debate, and is now an important part of the 2017 campaign discourse.
3. It’s fun to watch
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the Univeristy debate is a gripping, sometimes shocking, hour of candid discussion between the people who are leading the country, and the ones who are just beginning to carve their own civic path.
It’s unbridled, it’s loud, it’s rude. It’s way more fun to observe than any other electoral event by miles.
4. It levels the playing field
Having all contesting parties included in one debate is rare – it was certainly a novelty in 2008 when the organisers insisted on having all four present. All the leaders have to answer the same questions, all of them are timed, all of them are subjected to the vocal scrutiny of the passionate student audience.
This doesn’t really happen elsewhere in the electoral campaign. This year, Alternattiva Demokratika is being left out of televised debates.
5. It usually gives insight into what the whole nation is feeling
Just by watching the introduction to the 2008, it’s irrefutably clear where the students’ allegiances lay. The hall vibrated with PN support, and while Lawrence Gonzi laid siege on Labour leader Alfred Sant’s position against EU membership and his refusal to concede defeat in the referendum, he certainly had the support of the room.
In 2013, long queues took shape from early in the morning, with chants of ‘Malta taghna lkoll’ rippling through the student crowds. Flags were distributed, and generally, it was very clear where the majority support was.
So it’s clear that the outcome of the leaders’ debate has proven to give insight into the sentiments of the entire nation.
This event has repeatedly shaken up campaigns and given young voters a real chance to make themselves heard. It’s a big, rowdy barometer for what’s yet to come in the campaign. Even if we don’t need it, we want it.