Sunday 05 July 2020

The campaign so far

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

What a week it has been.

I think it is safe to say that Muscat caught everyone by surprise during the 1 May mass meeting when he announced a snap election. There had been a few hints that it would be called for 17 June, but I doubt that anyone except for the inner circle could have possible foreseen he would anticipate that date by 2 full weeks and go for the shortest possible timeframe. I have often noticed that Muscat likes to spring these type of surprises and do the unexpected in order to pull the rug from under the feet of his political adversaries.

Undoubtedly, calling an election before its time brings with it an almost surreal, weird atmosphere: we went from trying to guess the date (mid-June? November? March?) into full election mode in one fell swoop. I think it took a couple of days for most people to realise what was happening and it took the Opposition some time to decide how to play this. On the one hand, there had been loud clamours for an election to be called because “Muscat’s position is untenable”, and then magically, here it was and many were downright ecstatic that the party had been given a real possibility of ousting Muscat sooner rather than later. But, just as quickly, I was reading the opposite reaction: no, the election should not have been called now, Muscat should have stepped down as PM until the inquiry was concluded and let someone else take over the leadership, and the election should have been held after the full five years’ term. But something tells me that if that had happened, the Labour administration would still have been accused of trying to cling on to power at all costs.

Inevitably, it wasn’t long before we got the first attempt at spin: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw PN exponents crowing that “the government has collapsed” (waqa’ l-gvern). There are a lot of things that can be said about the reasons for this snap election, but describing it as a collapse in government is certainly not correct. There were also comparisons with the short-lived Sant administration between ’96 – ’98. But, going to the polls early to seek a new mandate can by no stretch of the imagination be compared to what happened to Alfred Sant, who lost his one seat majority when his own MP, former Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff voted against the government on a money Bill, which Sant himself had tied to a vote of confidence, making it impossible for him to govern. The Labour party was split into two factions as the two men lashed out at each other and the PN rubbed its hands in anticipation waiting for the inevitable to happen.

There are also statements being repeated ad nauseam that the election is one year ahead of time: now call me pedantic but from June to next March is only nine months, not a year. It may be a trivial point, but I don’t like it when facts are twisted to score some silly political point.

Of course, it is obvious that Muscat is fighting for his political survival and the polls showing that his impressive 36k lead has shrunk dramatically probably cost him quite a few sleepless nights. I doubt he even needs to be on his much- publicized diet any more with the kind of pressure he is under. In politics, perception is everything, and when people start turning their backs on your party it is quite a gamble to keep hanging on and take the risk of the gap between the PL and the PN becoming even smaller. There have been a mountain of allegations thrown against him and those closest to him, and while the inquiry has not been concluded, the suspicions that he is implicated persist, especially as he did not do what he should have done a year ago.

Perhaps the only aspect about this snap election that everyone likes is that this campaign is mercifully short. In fact I propose a change to our electoral law that all campaigns should last exactly 33 days. If possible, I would even chop off those additional three days and make it a nice, round number: 30. Do we really need any more time than that to find out just how many goodies and Manna from heaven both sides are suddenly promising us? I like this kind of sharp, just get to the point efficiency of a short campaign. It cuts through all the wastage of unnecessary political flyers no one ever reads, saves a lot of trees in the process, and delivers us from needless hot air as TV stations strive to keep people interested with discussions and debates when everyone is already glassy-eyed from election ennui.

If it were up to me I would also change this prerogative of the Prime Minister business. Parliament should agree on a fixed date every five years, similar to the US where elections are held every four years on the first Tuesday after 1 November (which means it is always between 2 November – 8 November). How beautifully simple is that? It does not give the incumbent any unfair advantage to call an election when it suits him, and other events can be planned to avoid clashes.

Because, of course, there is a clear downside for the PN about this snap election as it has caught them wrong-footed. (Although if they were assuming it would be 17 June I wonder why they did not have more of their strategy and political communications all ready to go?). In any case they have had to accelerate their plans and are scrambling to keep up while the Labour party obviously had a heads up and had everything in place much more quickly, including a sleek, fancy, new website. It’s definitely not fair, but nothing’s fair now that the whistle has been blown and we must brace ourselves to try and sift the truth from the relentless propaganda from all sides.

Based on what I have seen so far, however, none of the slogans and billboards are exactly earth-shatteringly brilliant. Granted, many will argue that all this publicity material is money down the drain because most people don’t base their decisions on a billboard. However, if you are going to make the effort, there should be some thought behind them rather than the usual predictable scaremongering vs. “we are living in paradise” scenario.

Where is the wit and the humour, something which will make us at least sit up and take notice?

I’m not the only one who is unimpressed. For example, I have read countless comments by Nationalist supporters who are complaining about the “He has let us all down” billboard showing Muscat’s face in extreme close up. They seem to think it is too weak and not punchy enough to properly express all their moral outrage. They definitely prefer the Maltese version “Qarraq bina lkoll” which is more precisely translated as “He has deceived us all”. While it is clearly aimed at those who deserted the PN and voted Labour in 2013, there seems to be a lack of agreement about whether this slogan will really bring them back to the fold.

On the Labour side, the slogan “L-Aqwa Żmien ghal Pajjiżna” (the best time for our country) has the requisite feel good factor, but it completely ignores the concerns of those who are seriously worried that corruption seems to have infiltrated the top echelons of the country. The sarcastic rejoinder, “the best time for whom, for Muscat & Co.?” was quick to follow.

The two parties have also chosen almost exact logos and colours, so much so that I saw a mail shot carrying one of the logos and after reading two lines I wondered why the PN was praising free childcare, a Labour initiative, only to realise that it was an email from the Labour Party. That kind of obfuscation may have been deliberate, but will only serve to confuse an electorate whose head is already spinning after just one week.

Meanwhile, both sides are using banners to decorate rows of roadside barriers, which seems to be a new thing. Not only does the similarity of the logos become even more apparent, but it seems to be a case of overkill: I’m wondering how long I can keep reading “” or “I choose Malta” as I am driving along before I get the irresistible urge to stop my car and tear them all down?

I admit to rather liking PN’s “I choose Malta” as a slogan even though it seems to have been plagiarized from Le Pen’s French campaign. However, the absence of proper grammar in the Maltese version “Jien nagħżel Malta” however, has driven grammar Nazis crazy (as has the the obsessive use of a full stop with every PN slogan) . But what does it really tell me about the PN Leader and his vision for the country? As many Labour pundits were quick to point out, the PN is always ready to smear Malta’s name (to get at Muscat) every chance they get when they speak at the Euro Parliament, which is a valid observation. So how can they now square this with their slogan?

What I find interesting is that so far neither political party is using the image of their Leader in their billboards, probably to avoid the accusation of creating a personality cult. However, we cannot escape the fact that election campaigns are always about the two respective leaders and whom we will choose when we go to the polls.

And any which way you slice it, that is the real choice before us: Who do we prefer to be the next Prime Minister?

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