There was a surreal moment yesterday when Bernard Grech arrived at the Naxxar counting hall. Party agents erupted into wild applause and sang the Nationalist Party anthem, a scene we haven’t seen in a counting hall since the PN scraped a wafer-thin victory in 2008.

Only an hour earlier, Robert Abela had received a similarly enthusiastic welcome from party agents after his party secured the majority at the European elections.

Rarely have we seen an election which left the supporters of both main parties feeling victorious. In reality, none of the parties won. But the country did. 

Labour secured the popular vote but lost around three-quarters of its 2019 majority and conceded a European Parliament seat. The Nationalists narrowed the gap by an impressive number but the fact remains it still has not won an election since 2008. 

It is worth noting the excellent performance by Arnold Cassola, who ranked third in first-count votes armed with just a laptop and plenty of passion.

While the result will be X-rayed in the coming weeks, it will undoubtedly jolt Malta’s political landscape.

Practically all political surveys carried out in the last number of years showed Labour with an unassailable lead, including the ones carried out on the eve of the election. What none of the surveys predicted was the way Labour’s seemingly ironclad majority has been cut to a few thousand votes.

Labour will celebrate maintaining a majority despite the litany of scandals that have plagued the party.

The hospitals’ scandal took centre stage as a former prime minister was charged with criminal offences for the first time in our history. Abela’s decision to go on the offensive and question the timing of the magisterial inquiry inevitably shifted the campaign’s focus. Party insiders say the tactic helped mobilise hardcore supporters but likely alienated the moderates who believe crimes cannot be eradicated with the strength of the public vote. 

Abela faces a dilemma: will he be blamed for standing by Joseph Muscat or criticised for “not doing enough” to ensure his predecessor avoids prosecution?

His strategy to brand critics the “establishment”, as well as describing Roberta Metsola as a "warmonger" backfired.

Labour was possibly penalised by some of its own supporters who believe they should be given precedence over the Nationalists. One invalidated voting document yesterday had the words ‘no flat, no vote’ scribbled across. Such is the sorry state of the game.

Other factors clearly swayed this weekend’s vote: despite the thriving economy, many people have had enough of the rampant nepotism, corruption and dilettantism

And they do this despite the fact that the Labour government used its power of incumbency to such a blatant extent: cheques were again shamelessly sent to households, projects were announced or delivered on the eve of the election. The list is endless. 

Yet, other factors clearly swayed this weekend’s vote: despite the thriving economy, many people have had enough of the rampant nepotism, corruption and dilettantism.

Many also cannot understand how the government remains reluctant to tackle the chronic problems caused by overdevelopment, occupation of public land and the decimation of the environment.

Meanwhile, despite lacking funds, the PN has made surprising inroads. The result will put the leadership in a buoyant mood, rally supporters behind Grech and kindle hopes of challenging Labour for government in 2027. 

But the PN also needs to take a good look at itself: why did tens of thousands prefer to abstain from voting or cast their preference for independent and smaller parties rather than rally behind it? The worst thing the PN can do is expect the result to be replicated in a general election if it were held tomorrow. 

To be fair, both Abela and Grech were admirably humble in their reactions yesterday but both will have to analyse the surprise outcome in detail. 

Ultimately the results are a good reflection on the electorate. After more than a decade, voters have shown they are prepared to shift their voting preferences and keep the party they traditionally support in check. Labour’s wings have been clipped. Its hegemony is over.

It can no longer point to massive popular support to downplay its misdoings. The country can only benefit as it will now have to watch its every step. This is democratic accountability in action.

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