Photo: Partit Laburista
Commentators are by and large dismissing the prediction that the MEP elections will result in a 5-1 victory for the Labour Party against the PN. According to most theories, Labour will at best manage four seats. The PN will muster either two seats or one, with the remaining one being left for a third party once they miraculously attract enough popular support to reach the MEP quota.
These predictions are misplaced on many grounds. On whether third parties will get a candidate elected, this seems unlikely. Since 1966, no third party had managed to break past 5% of the national vote, that was until 2017, when Partit Demokratiku elected two candidates.
But even this requires qualification; the candidates appeared on the ballot papers with a giant caveat called ‘Forza Nazzjonali’. After July 2017, relations between PD and PN soured, and PD plummeted again below the 5% required to win a green chair at City Gate.
Still, 2018 is regarded as a hopeful year for political life outside the political dichotomy. Civil society groups and extra-partisan initiatives stole some of spotlight, gaining the attention and imagination of many political observers. However, if the PD managed to put two MPs in Parliament, the rules of the European Parliamentary elections are different and more challenging.
Firstly, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) rules mean that any given candidate must get past the Droop quota. Last election, this stood at just under 36,000 votes. This year, conservative estimates put the figure at around 40,000. Secondly, the elections in May are not a party list system. Candidates are elected, not political parties. Small parties will have to fully back one candidate if they want a shot at sending a representative to the continent.
This is less of an issue for the big parties. One of the advantages of the STV is that voters are at liberty to vote across party lines. Ballot rules have been flexed to cater for and manipulate Maltese voter behaviour, which continues to defy the advantages of the STV system.
Voters remain by and large loyal to their political party. Evidence of this, if it is needed, is abundant in datasets available for transfer votes. In the last MEP contest, an average of 94% of votes transferring from the Labour Party remained inside the party. The party divide is prominent considering three times more votes were wasted rather than transferred to other parties (averages of 3% and 1% respectfully).
These figures were also typically reflective of the Nationalist voter trends. But for how long?
Of those who voted for the PN in 2017, barely half have decided to vote for the PN again, according to MaltaToday surveys from last November. One in five will shirk their vote, and almost a quarter are undecided. If voter turnout statistics are anything to go by, then the 14% no-vote rate that emerges in the survey ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The question arises, where will their vote go? As aforementioned, the MEP race is about candidates, not parties. Labour’s unity won’t be a problem for a while. The PN is split down the middle. Nuclear fission, though relatively efficient, is still subject to lost particles –for the PN, this means a split will result in lost votes. How efficient is the PN fission? Not much.
In 2014, only Alfred Sant was elected on the first count. Everyone else relied on transferred votes. It’s those same transfer votes that awarded the PN its third seat, by a hairline 206 votes between Therese Comodini Cachia and Clint Camilleri. Transfer votes therefore meant the difference between seats.
With a split party, will more liberal PN voters be willing to transfer their votes to more conservative candidates?
The PN was looking at a gap of almost 80,000 votes last November. Today, that number has probably grown. The PN’s polling means a seat is almost certainly within reach. But their second seat is totally dependant on vote transfers. With the current split, the PN cannot guarantee that its members will vote across party divisions.
The intra-party vote transfers that have so far strengthened each party are at risk in the PN. They might be transferred to Labour, or more likely to third parties. It is worth noting that in 2014, votes that went to third parties largely found their way back to the big parties. The remaining half were wasted. If more votes are transferred to third parties, who are nowhere near the 40,000 votes they need for a seat in Europe, those votes will almost certainly be discarded, chiselling at PN’s 5th seat that might very well end up in Labour’s hands.
What then? With five Labour MEPs, the sole Nationalist MEP will be useless to the EPP. The Labour Party will have a hegemony at a European level, restricting civil society’s voice in raising awareness on pertinent issues on the rule of law. The repercussions on Maltese democracy are profound unless the PN rebuilds its bridges. If the PN loses the 5th seat, there will be very low chances for recovery after that.