The first week of political campaigning has been relatively peaceful and “civilised” so far, according to two analysts.
Despite being known for our political hot-headedness in times like these, the parties and their supporters have largely gone head-to-head on ideas and proposals, not personal attacks, according to academic George Vital Zammit and former trade union leader Jeremy Camilleri.
However, Zammit – a lecturer in public policy who has been highly critical of the government’s record on governance – said that contrary to 2013, Labour has so far failed to present a “wow factor’ or a star candidate.
As for the Nationalist Party, the developments in the last week are not conducive to make way for “fresh blood”.
“A party can only truly change faces when it is in government, not when it is still struggling to be elected,” Zammit said.
“In 2013, Joseph Muscat let everyone in Labour be until he rose to power. Then he moved old faces out of the way by giving them other positions. He did it with Karmenu Vella, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, George Vella, Anġlu Farrugia, Toni Abela, Wenzu Mintoff and the rest.
“But he could only do that because he had the power of incumbency to offer them other positions. When you’re still in opposition, you can only fire them, all the while making enemies,” Zammit said.
On Monday, PN MPs Clyde Puli, Kristy Debono, Mario Galea and Claudio Grech announced they would not be seeking re-election. Bernard Grech said the party had asked Puli, Debono and Galea to make way for new people.
Camilleri, a former secretary of the General Workers’ Union who is supportive of PL measures but has spoken out against government corruption, finds Grech’s comment utterly distasteful.
“What is he saying there? Was he sending a message to Jason Azzopardi and Edwin Vassallo to call it a day as well?
Because they have been in the party more than some of the candidates who quit,” he said.
“And with all this talk about discrimination and social exclusion, isn’t this age discrimination?”
What old faces?
Zammit too struggles to fathom how Kristy Debono and Claudio Grech could be considered as ‘old faces’, saying they were relatively recent additions to the party.
“I also think these candidates’ supporters will find it hard to shift their support to another candidate. The party will struggle to urge their constituents to vote for another candidate instead of them.
“Nationalist supporters generally develop loyalty to the candidate, not the party, whereas Labour supporters usually prioritise the party over the leader or any candidate and are quick to shift support from one candidate to another, so long as they are still Labour.”
Still, Zammit does see relevant and competent new candidates, especially the likes of lawyer Mary Muscat.
“But the parties are not pushing star candidates like Labour did in 2013 with Konrad Mizzi and Manuel Mallia. If this doesn’t change, I expect next term’s parliamentary groups to be very similar to the current ones, perhaps with the exception of PN’s Joe Giglio and Labour’s Alison Zerafa Civelli, who could both very well be elected,” Zammit said.
Camilleri said it appeared some of the PN candidates who quit last Monday deliberately wanted to damage the party, and that despite Bernard Grech’s best efforts to persuade people the party was united again, this week’s events showed it clearly was not.
Labour is not taking chances and is campaigning like it might lose
“The PN’s division is its worst drawback,” he said.
Camilleri noted that despite knowing very well it is way ahead in the polls, Labour is not taking chances and is campaigning like it might lose.
“They’re not taking it for granted. Labour is acting as if it’s running head-to-head with PN,” he said.
Marina and Żonqor
He interprets Abela’s decision to drop the Marsascala marina plans as a sign that the government truly listens to the people and is not indifferent to their concerns.
“I remember other administrations bulldozing on with their plans, despite people’s protests. That has changed nowadays. Labour has listened,” he said.
On the other hand, Zammit is repulsed by the triumphant aura with which the decision to return Żonqor to the government was announced by Labour.
“Robert Abela has been fighting for the project and dismissing people’s concerns for years. Now he comes along, says he changed his mind and pretends that we congratulate him. He is taking credit for something he has been fighting against for years,” he said.
“The Żonqor decision shows the Labour electorate is willing to forgive and forget its leader easily. I don’t think the PN electorate would be so quick to do that. They’d be accusing their leader of a U-turn for months.”
Zammit is impressed with the Nationalist Party’s electoral manifesto and he doubts whether it will find enough time to explain it all.
“It is a social manifesto in its core, but it strikes a balance between economic prosperity, the common good and personal well-being,” he said.
“But PN must justify how and when it plans to deliver on those promises, and how much they will cost. It has a lot of explaining to do there.”
“The PN has long been accused of being negative. I don’t think that’s fair. Judging from the proposals they put forward over the past years and that the government took on board, and from this manifesto, I think that critique doesn’t hold,” Zammit said.
Camilleri sees the PN clearly drifting away from its 2017 war on corruption, which he says backfired badly, and moving towards proposing ideas and incentives.
Both Zammit and Camilleri were unimpressed by Joseph Muscat’s return to politics, arguing the move might well harm Labour.
“I don’t like what he’s doing. I think he should have stepped aside and let the new leadership work freely,” Camilleri said.
Zammit argued: “It’s a big gamble for Labour to have Muscat endorsing candidates. He could overshadow Abela. And given Muscat’s shady political career, I think the party should detach itself from him, not bring him back.”
The university lecturer also sees Labour as having taken “a leaf out of the presidential manual of campaigning” by putting Abela and his name at the forefront of the campaign while almost completely doing away with the concept of a party and its emblem.
“Trust barometers are currently indicating Abela enjoys more trust than the Labour Party, so I get it. It happened with Lawrence Gonzi in 2008 as well.
But he said he personally prefers it when political campaigns focus on the party, not the individual.
“I expect this election to gift us with politicians of integrity. To me, now more than ever, integrity has become indispensable to politics,” Zammit said.