Saturday’s election saw Labour’s 42,000 vote lead dissolve into thin air, with PN coming within touching distance of an electoral win after more than a decade in the wilderness.

With PN celebrating a defeat that feels like a victory and Labour digesting a win that tasted of defeat, some obvious questions arise.

How did a seemingly insurmountable lead get cut down in one fell swoop? Did Labour’s lost votes go to PN? And how does the strong showing of independent candidate Arnold Cassola play into this?

Labour’s collapse

Labour entered this election on the back of a decade of unprecedented electoral success, with one record-breaking victory following the next, regularly winning more than 54% of all votes.

But this plummeted in the European election, dropping by some nine percentage points, to see the party take just over 45% of all voters’ preferences.

The scale of this drop is unprecedented in Malta’s recent electoral history. Just to give one example, the swing that swept Labour into power back in 2013 saw PN drop six percentage points, turning a 1,500 vote win in 2008 into a 35,000 vote defeat five years later.

In practice, this means that some 23,500 fewer people voted for Labour in these elections compared to 2019.

Labour’s 45% share of the total vote is also its lowest in over half a century.

We need to dig into the archives to find a worse tally, to a time when England were about to win their first (and only) World Cup, The Beatles were readying to release the seminal Eleanor Rigby, and George Borg Olivier’s PN swept to victory in the 1966 elections, holding Dom Mintoff’s interdicted Labour Party to just 43% of the vote.

Did PN increase its share?

It did, compared to its disastrous showing in the MEP elections in 2019, but perhaps not as much as the narrow gap between the parties would suggest.

In 2019, PN registered just under 38% of the total vote, its lowest tally in recent history. PN received 42% of votes this time around, a marked 4 percentage point increase compared to 2019.

It is also higher than the tallies that the party registered in any previous MEP election, where it had never raised its head above the 40.5% mark.

But this year’s 42% share is roughly the same tally it registered in the 2022 general elections and is actually lower than the share it won in both 2013 and 2017 elections, both of which ended it heavy defeat.

That’s not to say that PN didn’t gain any votes, quite the contrary.

Just over 109,000 voters gave PN their top preference this time around, almost 11,000 more than 2019. But this is fewer than half of the 23,500 votes that Labour haemorrhaged.

In practice, this means that out of every two votes that Labour lost since 2019, only one of them switched to PN, with the other preferring to look elsewhere.

Some of PN's gains are likely attributed to the extraordinary popularity of Roberta Metsola, whose performance far eclipsed all other candidates not just in this election, but in all previous European elections too.

When the dust of this election settles, PN insiders will be mulling what the party needs to do to make inroads with the unhappy former Labour voters who still shun the party, as well as whether Metsola's votes will translate into PN votes in a general election, should she not feature on the ballot sheet.

One former Labour vote goes to PN, but the other goes to independents

The exodus from Labour was also key to the rise of independent candidates, particularly Arnold Cassola who saw his tally rise by roughly 10,000 votes since 2019 to now reach over 12,000 first-count votes.

Cassola wasn’t the only independent or third-party candidate to perform respectably. Former PL mayor Conrad Borg Manché won almost 6,000 votes, while far-right Nazi sympathiser Norman Lowell received just under 7,000 first preferences.

More broadly, independent and third-party candidates increased their tally by over 12,500 votes since 2019, making it the best showing for independent or third-party candidates in any MEP election to date.

While this wasn’t enough to see a third-party candidate win a seat, it certainly was enough to eat into Labour’s huge majority and also prevent PN from bridging the gap further.

100,000 voters stay home

In the run-up to the election, Labour was clearly concerned about voter abstention, with a higher-than-usual number of people in Labour-leaning districts indicating that they intended to sit the election out.

While district turnout figures suggest that this did come to pass, at least to some degree, the overall drop in total turnout that was feared didn’t happen after all, with virtually the same number of people voting this year as they did in 2019.

This meant that, once again, some 100,000 voters stayed home on election day, with just over 270,000 people casting their vote.

It appears likely that the disgruntled Labour voters who stayed home were matched in number by voters in other districts, many of whom may have cast their vote for either PN or independent candidates.

The whims of these 100,000 people who abstained are likely to shape the direction of Malta's next general election, when the overall turnout is likely to climb from just over 70%, as is customary for European elections, to well over the 80% mark.

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