Labour activists are approaching this week’s local council election results with apprehension as several party insiders say they are bracing themselves for what could be the party’s first defeat in 20 years.

Sources close to the party and the electoral process told Times of Malta that Labour’s poor performance in the MEP election could be an indication that it will fare even worse – and possibly even lose – the local councils elections to PN.

“According to my estimations, we’re going in for a defeat. Sunday’s gap was too narrow to offer us any comfort for the local councils result,” one senior Labour source said.

“And that first defeat would dramatically rock the party.”

On Sunday, the party saw its seemingly unassailable lead cut down to size, winning the MEP elections by under 8,500 votes, in a shock result that stunned PN and Labour officials alike.

Labour insiders who spoke to Times of Malta say that things could be even more bleak come the weekend, with the very real prospect of the party losing the local council elections for the first time in decades.

One insider said the party was fearing it could lose the majority of localities like Pembroke, Siggiewi, San Ġwann, Mellieħa, St Paul’s Bay and Gżira.

“If the PN wins the council elections, Abela must re-establish his position as the legitimate leader through a vote of confidence at least – if not through a leadership race,” a senior source said.

“We portrayed this election as a vote of confidence in the leader and the MEP vote did not pass the 50% mark. The last time Lawrence Gonzi, Alfred Sant and Bernard Grech were in similar situations they were forced to call an election or a vote of confidence, and Abela would need to do the same.”

Count starts tomorrow

Malta chose its new mayors and local councillors at the polls last Saturday but those boxes are yet to be opened and the result revealed.

Sorting and counting will start tomorrow and an official result is expected by Friday.

A Labour defeat is not set in stone, however. The PL could still pull through successfully and do better in the 69 localities its candidates have contested. But party acolytes are not too hopeful.

One factor could be the independent candidates’ votes. Insiders said it seems like the majority of people who gave their first preference to independent candidates like Arnold Cassola in the MEP election were PN voters who swung to him for that election but will probably swing back to PN when it comes to their local council.

Cassola got the highest amount of number 1 votes among independent candidates – a total of 12,706 – and winning back some of his voters would give PN a much-needed edge.

Another factor is that the less an election is perceived as important, the more likely it is for disgruntled people to opt for a protest vote, one insider explained.

Several sources believe Labour would not have fared as badly if this were a general election, as Labourites would be less likely to protest with a vote that they know might change the government. That is why, one source added, Labour portrayed the MEP election as if it were a general election – to bolster its importance.

“Clearly that didn’t work well enough, because too many people understood it wasn’t as detrimental as a general election and felt comfortable to cast a protest vote,” the source said.

“Now, the local council elections are perceived as even less important or detrimental, so we fear voters’ readiness to swing to PN in protest is even more plausible.”

Almost unblemished record

A defeat at the polls would come as a further blow to the party, given its almost unblemished record in local council elections over the years.

Labour has won 14 of the last 18 local council elections dating back to 1999, although this figure also includes elections that took place for just a handful of councils, before the system was changed to carry out local council elections for all localities in one go.

Labour’s last significant defeat dates back over two decades to March 2003. At the time, the two parties were locked in a heated battle over whether Malta was to join the European Union.

PN won that particular battle and, in a more low-key turn of events, pipped Labour to the post to claim top spot in the local council elections.

How will the count take place?

The votes will be counted over three days, split into three groups of localities.

Tomorrow, 23 localities will come under the microscope, including Malta’s largest local council of St Paul’s Bay, Valletta, and important swing towns such as Żebbuġ.

Thursday will see the votes of another 21 towns and villages counted, including Birkirkara, Sliema and Marsascala. And the process will finally end on Friday, when the votes of the final 21 localities, including Mosta, Siġġiewi and Ħamrun are tallied.

In the run-up to the election, both Labour and PN sources moved to dispel rumours that they were struggling to find suitable candidates, insisting that they have a “healthy” number of candidates on the cards.

In total, some 707 candidates will be vying for a seat, 381 from Labour and 292 from PN, both figures slightly fewer than they fielded in 2019.

Another 34 independent candidates or candidates hailing from smaller parties, including several resident-driven groups, will also be hoping to win a seat.

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