For Landslide Victory to Be Meaningful, Malta’s Labor Party Must Return to Its Roots

The general elections in the Mediterranean island of Malta, a republic and the smallest EU member state, resulted in an astounding landslide victory for the Labor Party led by 39-year-old former European Member of Parliament Joseph Muscat. The elections brought to an end a 25-year period of government by the traditionally Christian Democrat and the historically center-right-leaning Nationalist Party.

At the time of writing, Labor won 55.1 percent of the votes, as opposed to the ruling party’s 43.1 percent. The small Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) party, the green party, polled 1.8 percent of the vote, a haul which marked an improvement on earlier showings, but which was not sufficient to win it a seat in the House of Representatives. The gap in votes between the two major parties is believed to be around 36,000 in a country with a population of approximately 400,000 people, which translates into a majority of nine seats in the House of Representatives. Registered voters numbered 333,000 and the turnout, as usual, was high: 93.3 percent. The magnitude of victory is historic, nowhere in keeping with traditional voting patterns on the island. Margins have been much lower, ranging between 5,000 and 13,000 in elections from 1992 onward. In these circumstances, recourse was often made to a provision in the constitution, introduced in 1987, which stipulates that the party that obtains the majority of votes, despite obtaining a lower number of seats in a proportional representation (PR) system with a single transferable vote system (in which voters rank candidates in their order of preference, without party restrictions, and their votes are allocated according to which candidates are subsequently elected or eliminated) earns the right to form a government by being allocated additional seats in proportion to its vote majority. This provision was made in light of the perverse result yielded by the 1981 general elections, in which Labor won on the basis of obtaining a majority of seats despite garnering a minority of votes. This year there will be no need for such a provision, since the Labor Party is expected to govern with a majority of nine seats.

The reasons that can be attributed to the Labor Party’s emphatic victory are various, foremost among which a campaign in which the party rallied potential voters around the cry that the country belongs to everyone, thus pledging to end the sectarian type of tribal politics which had characterized the country for decades. It appears as though this appealed to the imagination of people who, like elsewhere in Europe, have been expressing their disenchantment with traditional ways of doing politics characterized by a “winner takes all” mentality. Dr. Joseph Muscat, a PhD graduate from Bristol University, has also been speaking publicly since gaining the party leadership in terms of a movement rather than a party, a movement which embraces a variety of groups and people with divergent interests, often traditionally at odds with each other (environmentalists and hunters; trade unionists and employers, etcetera). It remains to be seen whether this coalition holds out for long. Other important factors include a slick campaign, involving a variety of media, notably social media, in which proposals were put forward that were backed by a rigorous costing exercise and a road map with established time frames, most particularly in the important sector of energy. The energy plan is also meant to allow for substantially reducing utility rates.

Furthermore, the image projected was of a party which regrouped and reorganized itself thoroughly, rising from the ashes of successive electoral defeats in 1998, 2003 and 2008, galvanized no doubt by successes in the smaller European elections, local elections and the referendum on the introduction of divorce (Malta was one of three countries in the world where legal divorce is not available to married couples). Many members of the Labor Party, together with AD and a few dissident voices in the governing party, supported the introduction of divorce.

On the other hand, many expressed their dissatisfaction with the presence of a government accused of arrogance and of losing touch with the people as a result of its long period in power, a period which included a two-year interlude in which Labor wielded power through an electoral victory in 1996, but which it lost following a snap election in September 1998. The country was also rocked by a series of allegations of corruption, including a recent oil procurement scandal that emerged in the course of the lengthy election campaign period.

The governing party also suffered from internal dissent. Members of parliament on the side of the party in government openly revolted against the leadership, arguing that the party, and, therefore, the country, was hijacked by a clique; one of them voted against the 2013 financial estimates (a budgetary document on revenue and cuts), which was enough to bring down the government and lead to the dissolution of parliament on January 7.

Furthermore, the general feeling is that Labor won the electoral advertising campaign hands down based on positive messages and proposals. This contrasted sharply with the negative campaign of the party in power, which focused primarily on character assassination (especially against those who broke rank, pledging publicly to support and vote Labor), a campaign which included not just billboards but also blogs. In the view of many, these attempts backfired.

It has been observed that the magnitude of Labor’s victory in these circumstances brings to mind Tony Blair’s electoral victory in Britain in 1997. It also brings memories of the kind of reform within Labor politics which presents traditional socialist discourse as obsolete. The image projected is that of a party which has been turned around significantly since the days of Dom Mintoff, Labor’s most internationally known leader, who passed away last August and who is widely remembered for his socialist discourse, his wide-ranging social reforms and nonaligned political stance. The term “socialism” was conspicuous by its absence in Labor’s campaign. Instead of reference to the working class in its most variegated form, there was talk, by the leadership, of strengthening and creating a new middle class.

Muscat’s party is an avowedly European party, committed to EU membership, a situation which contrasts sharply with the stand taken by his predecessor, Alfred Sant, who, as party leader, adopted an anti-EU membership stance (losing the 2003 referendum on the issue) and, when prime minister between 1996 and 1998, headed a government that froze Malta’s application to join the EU.

The Labor Party and AD have placed on the agenda issues concerning traditionally marginalized groups. The AD has in recent years been most vociferous and consistent on these issues, and, needless to say, environmental issues. AD is the only party that addressed the burning issue of racism in the context of the everyday plight of migrants constantly crossing over to the country from North Africa.

I would argue that if the Labor Party in government is to retain vestiges of what it has traditionally stood for, then the issues of migration and racism against migrants, in the context of contemporary notions of workers’ solidarity and the rallying call that “Malta belongs to everyone,” should be given great priority. Other important tasks include: redressing the internal structural financial deficit; implementing the energy program to which the government is committed and on which the new prime minister has staked his credibility; tackling organized crime – there has been a case of alleged bribery of a judge meant to increase a drug trafficker’s prison term, a situation which led sections of the press to refer to the presence of gangs in Malta; and finally, addressing unemployment, and the increased level of part-time employment – and most particularly, precarious contract employment – as a primary job, especially among women. There are also the promised whistleblower protection act and regulations for the financing of political parties.

It will be clear to readers by now that we are faced with yet another situation when two parties, formerly divided on ideological grounds, seem to have lost these sharp forms of distinction. In these circumstances, the cynical view would be that it can all boil down to the question of who is the better manager and who is the least corrupt. This is an all-too-familiar question in present-day mainstream politics. Judging from his address at his party’s headquarters after the electoral victory, Muscat would probably add: And who is the more humble?

I am indebted to my friends and colleagues Professor Carmel Borg, Professor Dominic Fenech and Michael Grech for their comments on an earlier draft.