Labour is set to make gains on a European level. This means more clout on the international stage, spelling more influence not just in the S&D Group, but in the European Parliament and the EU generally. Given the high stakes of the European Parliamentary elections, you’ll be forgiven to neglect the other elections also taking place in May: the local councils.
A convention is that they are a useful indicator of upcoming national elections. Given the polling trends we’ve become used to, the strong suggestion is that the PN are surprisingly in for a smack in the face.
Surveys, both internally and public, are consistently showing that there is a large segment of PN voters who are dissatisfied with the current leadership and that PL could subsequently triumph by around 65,000 votes in the European Parliament election. However, it is very possible that these disgruntled voters might still vote PN in the MEP election so as not to risk their favourite MEPs losing their seats.
Yet the story is completely different when it comes to local councils, where the stakes are not as high and where a protest vote could very well take place.
A protest vote against Adrian Delia could happen in the local council elections
From the outset, an important note is that the local council elections in 2013 were held in tandem with the general elections, in which there was a turnout of almost 94%. The MEP elections just a year later returned a turnout of less than 75%.
With the Labour Party voting share steadily increasing, a lower turnout will impact the Nationalist Party more direly than their counterparts.
The revelation with the most shock factor was Gozo. The Independent refers to Gozo as “a prestigious prize as whoever wins Gozo has a good chance of winning the country.” What was once a traditional PN stronghold had not only flipped to Labour in 2013, but according to some polls, the PN isn’t even registering over Gozo anymore. That means less than 5% of Gozitans are ready to post their ballots in favour of the PN – an abysmal result that couldn’t be fathomed 10 years ago.
With PN support steadily dwindling, a number of PN-controlled local councils are set to flip over to the other side, particularly those with a very small gap between the opponents.
In many localities, just tens of votes marked the difference between victory and failure. Siggiewi, the hometown of Opposition leader Adrian Delia, is a good example, with PL and PN neck and neck throughout and PN ultimately winning by a handful of votes on subsequent counts. But other localities are more dramatic. A hairline 90 votes lost Labour the Valletta council in 2013.
It doesn’t take much political prowess to predict that if PN won by such a small margin in 2013, then the PN of today would not be so lucky.
The importance of vote transfers cannot be overstated. The Nationalists’ lead in Mosta was 500 votes at the first count. At the end of counting, that decreased to just 124 votes. They held onto Nadur with 15 votes thanks to votes which didn’t transfer within the party. St Paul’s Bay was held with by 9 votes.
Under the STV system, first-preference votes are more unimportant than everyone makes them out to be. Transfers are underrated and relatively ignored due to their complicated nature, but their importance can swing elections.
If you’re still unconvinced, take a look at San Gwann. The council is currently under PN administration, but Labour had 148 more first preference votes.
Labour might have fielded too many candidates in that council. Having too many candidates runs the risk of voters not filling in the entire ballot, for whatever reason. In fact, 84 votes of Labour’s lead were wasted because they had nowhere else to go. This wiped out their lead and gave PN the resultant lead of just 11 votes to win the council.
There are localities where it was Labour who won by margins which were just as narrow.
The San Gwann local council is one of many that could swing to Labour next month
Birkirkara is a great example to show exactly why the political parties advocate block voting to their supporters. The council was lost to Labour in 2013 by just 127 first preference votes, or less than 0.8% of the valid votes cast. Had the PN base block-voted more religiously, PN wouldn’t have lost so many transfer votes and the Birkirkara council could have fallen in PN’s hands.
Other localities that have been taken over by Labour in a nail-biting finish include Munxar, with a margin of 54 votes, Msida, with just 27 votes, and Mtarfa, possibly the wildest margin in this article. There were just five first preference votes between the two parties (the margin grew to 34).
What this article attempted to highlight is just how close the two parties have been in competing for local councils. With the STV system, first preference votes, on which polls are primarily based, are not very effective to show the realities and operations of local elections. With margins so narrow, it would be anyone’s game and every single vote really does count.
In light of this analysis, it can be argued that the biggest problem embattling the PN is fragmentation. If PN voters exclude candidates from their ballots, they will be depriving the party as a whole of vital votes that leave the party vulnerable to a stronger Labour increasing their share of seats. In essence, a weakened and split PN paves the way for a 5-1 scenario. If that happens, all those local councils are not very far from being seized by Labour, too.
Karl Camilleri is a political strategist, ex secretary general of Partit Demokratiku and co-founder of the Civil Society Network.
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