Labour will officially begin its campaign for June’s European and local council elections on Sunday, as party insiders fear low turnout and a relatively poor lineup could hinder its bid to retain a fourth MEP seat. 

The party’s campaign, which officially kicks off at the end of a General Council session scheduled for Sunday morning, will be led by a core group of insiders that also steered Labour to a record victory in the 2022 general election.

That team includes two of Robert Abela’s closest lieutenants – adviser Aleander Balzan and head of secretariat Glenn Micallef – as well as Malta Film Commission chief Johann Grech.

It also involves Kurt Farrugia, who has played a key role in all Labour campaign victories since 2012, in a significant way.

Farrugia, who runs Malta Enterprise as CEO, declined to comment when contacted and Labour insiders downplayed talk of any one individual leading the campaign.

“It’s the same team we had in 2022,” one source said.

“An operation this big cannot be managed by just one person. When it comes to political strategy, for example, [Labour president] Ramona Attard and [Labour deputy leader] Daniel Micallef are also heavily involved.”

Turnout woes fuel mixed feelings

With just over 40 days to go until the June 8 election, the party finds itself in the unusual position of bracing itself for disappointment while exerting a commanding lead over its Nationalist Party rivals.

For while all polls suggest Labour is poised to thump the PN by tens of thousands of votes in the MEP election, they also hint at a historically low turnout. And that, Labour insiders say, will likely mean the party will lose the fourth MEP seat and slim council majorities it won in 2019.

Optics play a big part in campaigning, there’s an element of human psychology at play- Labour veteran

“The distance between the two parties remains significant, but if turnout is what it is predicted to be, then we will be the ones who suffer the most,” said a Labour MP who asked not to be named.

Another MP said they feared many voters would spoil their ballots as a sign of protest. 

"I get the sense a growing number are upset about something or other. It's hard to gauge how we'll do: getting a fourth seat will depend on how votes carry, and local councils are very dependent on micro issues and specific personalities. But I'd be lying if I said I was feeling very confident," he said.  

A third MP was categorical.

“Anything below a 20,000 vote majority will be a big red card for us. Anything above that will be good, given the circumstances. And to be frank – a 20,000 margin will be a pyrrhic victory for the PN, because it means Bernard Grech will stay put. I’d sacrifice a fourth MEP seat for a general election victory,” the MP said.

No big names

The party is expected to field more than 370 council candidates across Malta and Gozo’s 68 localities, versus the roughly 300 that the PN is likely to present.

It also has nine candidates lined up for the European Parliament elections, though only one – Alex Agius Saliba – is a guaranteed vote-catcher. Contrast that to its 2019 lineup, which included heavy hitters Miriam Dalli and Alfred Sant as well as Josianne Cutajar, who hoovered up Gozitan votes.

The overall feeling is that Labour sorely lacks a big name that could attract voters.

Many voters appeared apathetic or unsure- Labour MP

“It’s a poor lineup,” one MP conceded.

“In previous elections we had people like Louis Grech, Edward Scicluna and Alfred Sant on the ballot. Now our star candidate is Alex Agius Saliba.” 

Another MP said many voters appeared apathetic or unsure.

“When I speak to people during house visits, many are asking me: ‘who should I vote for? I don’t know these candidates’. But in general, I get the sense many people just aren’t very engaged in politics,” the MP said.  

Labour billboards encouraging party supporters to attend a May 1 rally in Valletta. Photo: Times of MaltaLabour billboards encouraging party supporters to attend a May 1 rally in Valletta. Photo: Times of Malta

Worries about grassroots

According to a Times of Malta poll carried out earlier in April, Labour is leading the PN by an estimated 28,000 votes. But a large chunk of voters – as many as one in every three – say they do not intend to vote.

While that percentage is expected to shrink as election day nears, it is still causing some sleepless nights among Labour organisers.

In 2019, turnout reached 72.6 per cent, which was two percentage points lower than in 2014. But back then, traditionally blue districts saw the lowest turnouts.

None of the Labour insiders that Times of Malta spoke to was bullish about the party’s prospects. Many said the party’s success in the 2019 MEP and council elections means they are now trapped in the dilemma of the perennial winner: each electoral victory is judged solely against the previous one.

In 2019, Labour won a fourth MEP seat and also secured majorities in several councils that traditionally leaned PN, such as Mosta, Valletta and San Ġwann.

Of course, we will never say it out loud, but there is genuine concern. And I think we’re not spelling it out clearly enough to our supporters- Labour MP

Labour insiders say it will be hard to repeat that result.

“We’re working towards that goal, but it will be very difficult,” said an official involved in the campaign. “And anything less than our 2019 result might be perceived as a failure.”

A Labour MP said he would like to see more work being done to prepare the grassroots for that eventuality.

“Of course, we will never say it out loud, but there is genuine concern. And I think we’re not spelling it out clearly enough to our supporters,” the MP said.

Mobilising the troops

The party intends to outspend its rivals in its drive to mobilise voters, and it is already putting that war chest to use: witness the billboards dotted across the country, encouraging party supporters to attend a May 1 rally in Valletta. The hope is that a large crowd will boost morale and mobilise grassroots voters who are currently disengaged.

“Optics play a big part in campaigning, there’s an element of human psychology at play,” said a Labour veteran with years of campaign experience.

“Don’t underestimate how influential those aerial shots of large crowds can be.”

Robert Abela will fire the starting gun on the party’s campaign with a speech this morning that follows a series of town hall events the party has organised in recent weeks.

In that speech, Abela is expected to emphasise the importance of MEPs working in the national interest and encourage citizens to play an active role in shaping their towns and villages – a message that seeks to encourage people to get involved in local politics, and to get to the ballot box come June 8.

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