This column first appeared in Malta Today
We can speculate forever about why almost 60k people either did not collect their vote, abstained or invalidated their vote. In fact, there could be 60 thousand reasons, each one specific to the person.
There were people who live abroad for whom coming back to vote is an expensive, logistical nightmare – despite a lot of empty talk, the option for postal voting is something no government has ever taken seriously.
There are those who wanted to make a firm statement by showing “their” party that they refused to vote. Although some may not agree, I feel this is a legitimate way to register one’s protest and disapproval, since the parties are given lists of those who did not collect their vote as well as those who did not vote. These voters will not go so far as to switch parties, but they want to make a point of showing that they have completely withdrawn their support. It is a declaration in itself, especially towards the Labour government, that they cannot stomach what it has become. If we agree that one’s vote is a very personal instrument to be used as one sees fit, then not voting should not be dismissed so high-handedly by those who claim: “well, now you have no right to complain”. That there are so many who feel disenfranchised by Malta’s political system, because of the way it is structured, and because no one really represents their values and beliefs, should never be ignored.
Some voters who are still uneasy about revealing that they did not vote (based on the belief that there will be repercussions by those who wield power) will go to the polling booth and spoil their vote instead. In fact, twice as many people spoiled their vote compared to the 2017 elections, some of them writing often very creative messages to drive their point home.
What is undeniable is that there was no mad urgency to vote due to party allegiance as we have always witnessed in the past, and this translated into the lowest turnout (85.5%) in the living memory of most people. As we subsequently learned, while the polls had been showing abstentions by Labour supporters, the high rate of Nationalist supporters who stayed home was not picked up which could be attributed to the fact that these respondents were loathe to reveal their non-voting intentions. As a result, although the PL lost thousands of votes, the PN lost even more, which ending up giving the Labour Party its 39k majority.
And yet, despite this majority which handed them victory, the low turn out meant that in real terms only 46% of registered voters voted for the PL, a sharp downturn compared to previous elections.
There was also an increase of almost 5k votes for third parties, a cohort which continues to grow, but in the present context one would have expected this number to be even higher. The problem, of course, remains that third parties and independent candidates are expected to obtain a quota on a single constituency which is an insurmountable feat. With each election, the electoral system which favours the bi-party system, punishes not only alternative parties, but more crucially it punishes those who vote for them. The habitual insistence that the system “cannot be changed” no longer holds water – because if it could be changed to allow for the gender corrective mechanism, which is going to lump us with 12 extra seats in an already cumbersome Parliament, then it can be changed to allow representation of the more substantial third party vote.
Come to think of it, why don’t we also remove the option which allows a candidate to contest on two districts? This will pave the way for more candidates to be elected on their own steam, avoid the calculated manoeuvres of which district to relinquish to favour some candidates not others, and eliminate the need for casual elections. Something else which should be done away with is the co-option of a person who did not even contest the elections, just because there are no more candidates on that district. This truly is a sham which should be scrapped, and another method needs to be found for the seat to be filled, which would actually reflect, and respect, the democratic process.
Stop blaming the voters
The worst thing any political party can do after a defeat is to turn its cannons on the electorate, blaming them for the result. And yet, the immediate knee-jerk reaction by some within the PN was exactly that, rather than looking at what the result was clearly telling them.
Certainly, the infamous “gaħan” (moron) comment directed at anyone who votes Labour has not helped one iota. It has been at least 14 years that this penchant for mocking/ridiculing/sneering at PL voters has taken hold of some people’s psyche, and it has been for exactly that long that the PN has continued to be thrashed time and again at the polls. In 2008 it limped across the finish line with a 1,500 majority, and the numbers have been careening downhill like a car without brakes, ever since. They simply cannot get it into their heads that insulting undecided voters when they desperately need to persuade every single person, is backfiring every single time. At the risk of repeating myself again, very few families are “all Nationalist” or “all Labour”, so how on earth can the constant slurs be helping your party to be electable if you are forever demeaning someone’s relatives?
Many have pointed to the fact that this was an election with a foregone conclusion; we all knew Labour would win, just not by how much. Unfortunately, the PN took this knowledge so much to heart that it did not come out fighting so to speak, but simply spoke of “reducing the gap.” Now anyone who plays sports is aware that you should never enter a game with defeatist talk ringing in your ears. No matter how bad the odds are, no matter how much stronger your opponent is, the pep talk by the coach always has to be inspiring. He/she has to make his players believe that yes, they can win this. If you believe in something, then it is possible. But if you enter the ring already resigned to the fact that it’s a hopeless situation and that you might as well wave your white flag in defeat, then you have already lost before you started. This is another possible explanation for why PN voters stayed home. “Labour will win anyway, so why bother?”
Another defining factor was the power of incumbency which, of course, is a very real thing. Any government can dish out goodies prior to the election which no Opposition has access to. This, however, does not explain why PN voters abstained. If they were really “bought” by the tax rebate and stimulus cheques, logic would dictate that they would have simply voted Labour. Why punish their own party? There has to be more behind the Nationalist abstention and the answer can be found in the candidates who were not elected, as opposed to those that were. I do not buy the assertion that Nationalist voters snubbed Jason Azzopardi and Karol Aquilina because of anything Labour did or said. Since when does Labour hold such sway over PN voters? Perhaps the real answer is the most obvious one: PN voters have had enough of their repetitive narrative.
The still unhealed rift in the party ever since Adrian Delia was ousted as leader could be another explanation for the no vote.
It is also too facile to say that Labour won again because “people are happy with corruption”. The truth is that when they come to vote, most weigh the pros and cons and take into consideration a whole package of issues. At the top of the list is, frankly, that old adage, “it’s the economy stupid.”
It is time the Opposition stops living in denial and instead asks itself what radically different vision for the country they presented to the electorate during this campaign. Was it a vision which would dramatically improve our quality of life, especially where the environment is concerned? If they did provide one, I must have missed it. They did not really zero in on what people are concerned about. All I heard was more pandering to hunters, and the idea of a trackless tram rather than solid incentives to leave our cars at home. As for the all-powerful construction lobby, the bane of our existence, which has ruined Malta’s landscape forever, it was given such a wide berth by the PN that well, we all know the answer to that one.
Ultimately, the people have spoken, and the number crunching continues to lay bare what they had to say. One of the most interesting statistics is that 19.6% did not vote for either the PN or the PL. It is the first significant sign that the tight grip of this duopoly on the country is finally being diluted. Many voters have had enough and are simply not buying into the same old spiel any more.