It was James Carville, a strategist in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, who is credited with having come up with the famous saying: “It’s the economy, stupid” when he told Democratic Party campaign workers what they should focus on in 1992.
Put more crudely, it’s what people have, or expect to have, in their pockets, and that, clearly, was the overriding factor which gave Labour its third successive win on Saturday.
How else can anyone explain that a government repeatedly accused of corruption, blamed for creating the circumstances that led to a journalist’s murder and forced to appoint a new leader, still managed to pull off such a dominant triumph?
Fact is, Robert Abela, like Joseph Muscat before him, put the feel-good factor before any other consideration. It started with the promise to cut power tariffs by a quarter in 2013 and it ended with sending out cheques in the mail during election week.
But there was also much in between, including a freeze on tax increases, repeated pension raises, tax refunds, consumer vouchers and a freeze of energy prices.
Labour managed to return a surplus until COVID-19 struck. Two years on, despite a huge public debt, the economy is still among the best performers in the EU.
Joseph Muscat used to claim before the 2013 election that the economy was doing well ‘despite’ the Gonzi government. Nine years on, the Abela government has convinced the people that the economy is doing well ‘because’ of the government.
And the Nationalist Party simply has had no answer to it. It couldn’t really argue that the burgeoning debt could endanger Malta’s long term economic future when it was busy making expensive promises of its own.
It promised 10 new economic areas of activity, but with unemployment at a record low, voters did not seem to care much. Do you blame them?
What of the Nationalist Party?
While the government was so good at pandering to the electorate, what of the Nationalist Party? Why hasn’t it made any headway since 2008? It has had four leaders since, it has reformed its structures, changed its hierarchy, but what has it got to show for it?
That a party wins three general elections in a row is not unknown. It is the scale of Labour’s latest victory which sticks out.
Mintoff’s Labour Party won its third successive election in 1981 without winning a majority of votes. The PN won a third term in 2008 with a relative, not an absolute majority. In contrast, the current Labour Party has been winning by a landslide. Its latest victory looks to be bigger than the three previous PN victories, combined.
In 2017, Simon Busuttil was blamed for leading a single-issue electoral campaign, focusing on corruption. This time around Bernard Grech tried to be different, coming up early with hundreds of proposals to raise living standards. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was only mentioned during the tail end of the campaign. He banished the ‘negative’ label the PL had long pinned on the PN.
And yet the party was unable to convince the people that it was a viable alternative government.
Labour stopped from gaining a two-thirds majority
Some will argue that it has not been all bad for the PN. Not so long ago, Labour looked on course to winning a two-thirds majority, which would have even enabled it to change the constitution at will. That, mercifully for democracy, does not appear to be the case. But it is scant consolation down at Pieta’.
Much was made by Labour that the PN was unprepared to govern, coming out with different versions of its electoral manifesto and delaying its costings. But the malaise went deeper for the electorate.
Put simply, they could not recognise most of the people whose name showed up on the ballot paper. The PN ran away with the idea that change meant replacing practically all of its longest-serving officials and candidates, instead of having a proper mix. The result was a crop of possibly talented but as yet politically inexperienced people which the electorate could not associate with, let alone trust.
Even worse, the party was deeply divided and financially drained for most of the past five years. Could it ever hope to win?
Bernard Grech, a political newcomer himself, restored a semblance of order but clearly needed more time to grow into his role and assert himself. But would he now be given the chance to do so, or will the party plunge straight into another bruising, divisive, leadership fight?
Christopher Scicluna is deputy editor at Times of Malta