An election may not have been called last night, but both major leaders are now clearly warming up for one.
Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech were both in action last night, delivering rousing speeches in Ta’ Qali and Floriana.
And while their speeches may have been addressed in front of their loyal supporters, both leaders evidently intended their messages to resonate far and beyond, straight into the hearts and minds of people who have yet to decide which way to cast their vote when the time comes.
With campaigns set to heat up in the weeks and months ahead, this is what we learned about the parties’ strategies last night.
How the leaders portrayed themselves
Robert Abela’s strategy is clear; he wants people to see him as an ultimate reformer, a message encapsulated by the newest PL slogan ‘Nġeddu Malta Flimkien’, but one who is still true to the party’s socialist and progressive roots.
“Nġeddu Malta Flimkien isn’t a slogan but the beating heart of a party that keeps on renewing itself,” the Prime Minister explained.
To back up his case, he referred to recent institutional reforms (which he said were criticised for the manner in which they decentralised power), incentives for people to purchase electric cars and businesses to invest in low-polluting machinery, and long-term visions for a metro and electoral reform.
Twice in his speech, Abela stressed the point that while the PL’s raison d‘être should always be to help people who are struggling to make ends meet, its policies should in no way inflame class conflict or reduce the wealth of people at the top.
“I will strongly emphasise that we won’t make anyone regress,” he said. “If we do that, then those who are currently behind will stay where they are. But we will ensure that those who are still behind can run forward.”
On the other hand, Grech pitched himself as a regular man on the street who has supported the PN throughout all its changes in leadership. He spoke of his personal life experience in some detail, recounting how he was born in a humble working-class and raised in the south of Malta and how he met his wife-to-be Anne Marie back when they were teenagers volunteering for the Community Chest Fund.
After they got married, Grech said, they took out a loan to buy an apartment in Birkirkara and eventually “found the courage” to sell their flat and buy a new house in Mosta.
“We worked a lot in our house; we painted it, beautified it and even built parts of it by hand. Now that our children are finding their own paths in life and our country needs someone to guide it out of the path it has embarked on, the time has come for me to give more to my country.”
How they portrayed their opponents
With a move straight out of the Joseph Muscat playbook, Abela didn’t mention Bernard Grech by name once in his speech, sending people a message that the Opposition leader is so irrelevant that he doesn’t even deserve a mention.
However, he regularly made reference to the Opposition, lambasting them as a negative party which doesn’t have a single good word to say about their own country and accusing them of harming the country and its people in their thirst for power.
“Have you heard one word from the Opposition about the fact that [European Commission president] Ursula von der Leyen spoke positively about Malta?” he asked. “Imagine it was the reverse and imagine what they would have said about us.”
In contrast, Grech chose to combat Abela head-on, mocking the Prime Minister as a rich and out-of-touch politician who doesn’t understand the value of hard work and who is too scared to face him in a debate.
Twice in his speech, Grech claimed that the government’s plans for a Marsaskala marina all boil down to Abela’s personal desire to berth his yacht close to his home.
“How can such an alienated person who is stuck in his own bubble understand you when you feel that the natural environment is shrinking, that your salary has remained stagnant for years, that the nation’s wealth is being dished out to the people close to him and that your grocery list is becoming more expensive?” he asked. “He found his bed laid for him, not like you and I who had to work to the bone.”
He didn’t straight out call Abela an elitist, an insult traditionally used by PL politicians against PN politicians, but he may as well have…
Which national issues they focused on
Abela had his eye on long-term challenges for Malta. Besides the metro and some kind of electoral reform, the Prime Minister spent a good chunk of his speech stressing the need to improve people’s quality of life, beautify the natural environment and tackle climate change.
“Money isn’t everything and life cannot be measured by material wealth alone, but by the quality of our lives and the quality time we can spend with our loved ones,” he explained.
He said Malta must realise the reality of climate change and take proactive action, based on incentives, to ensure that policy decisions to shift the country towards a state of carbon neutrality don’t result in people becoming poorer.
And to back up his own credibility, he referred to recent electric car and clean machinery incentives and the conversion of landfills into public gardens.
“For those who doubt if we’ll get there – just as made a leap forwards in the economy, healthcare and infrastructure, so too will the next step be leaving a lovelier Malta for us and our children.”
Rather than zeroing in on one main issue, Grech used the occasion to remind people of some of the PN’s proposals – such as increasing salaries of teachers and nurses, giving farmers financial assistance, exempting businesses who earn under €60,000 from VAT, rapidly getting Malta off the FATF grey list, striking deals with German and French hospitals for the specialised treatment of Maltese patients, and requiring a two-thirds parliamentary approval for large ODZ developments.
Interestingly, he also called for the establishment of a cancer research centre and said Malta should seek to attract global tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, seemingly reviving Joseph Muscat’s lost ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’ dream.
Predictably, of course, he also used the occasion to criticise PBS, which he described as “Super Two”, for its coverage of the Opposition.
How they addressed their worst ‘homegrown’ problems
Despite its huge majority in the polls, Labour is still very much haunted by the ghosts of its recent past.
From the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case to the prosecutions of Keith Schembri, Schembri’s wife Josette Schembri Vella and officials from Nexia BT and Pilatus Bank, the PL lives day by day in the knowledge that damning information about the Joseph Muscat government could come out in court and that more arraignments could follow.
However, Abela must balance this risk with a cognisance of Muscat’s immense popularity among his own supporters and team members and a desire not to fracture the party.
His strategy so far has been to simply ignore Muscat and he continued down that path last night, not referring to his predecessor or to any of his achievements as Prime Minister at all.
As for the PN, it still faces a huge trust problem among large sections of the electorate, particularly those who have a bitter taste in the mouth from the last government and Simon Busuttil’s subsequent time in charge of the party.
The election of Adrian Delia was meant to solve these problems but only ended up creating new internal rifts, with Delia’s supporters not ready to forget the way he was ousted from the PN leadership.
Grech’s strategy so far has been to heap praise on everyone but also try and draw a line between the present and the past by promoting several new faces to top positions, two of whom (secretary general Michael Piccinino and political research head Martina Caruana) even got to address the crowds last night.
Through his frequent calls last night on people to join the party and “be the change”, it seems Grech hopes to solve the PN’s trust problem ‘organically’ by introducing several new faces who will eventually completely displace the problematic politicians.
Which political leader convinced you most last night?