A year ago, the Labour appeared to be invincible. After the landslide victory in the 2013 general elections, it went on to crush the Nationalist Party and the Greens in the European elections and Joseph Muscat seemed to be on his way to a long-lasting premiership, along the route of Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami.
The relatively stable economy inherited from Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist administration kept doing well and Muscat’s government was establishing itself as a progressive reformer in terms of civil rights and social policy: from LGBT rights to universally-accessible childcare. Not-so-positive aspects of the new Labour government were easily overshadowed by the feel-good-factor of Muscat’s honeymoon period.
Then, the Manuel Mallia controversy struck from out of nowhere, to be followed by a downward spiral of controversial policies, bad governance and broken electoral promises.
It became increasingly evident that the Tagħna lkoll slogan was a play on words. Instead of turning a new page symbolised by meritocracy, a universally-accessible public domain and the common good, the Labour government seemed to act like a feudal landowner, raising questions whether land and favours were being parcelled out to the inner core and to the drivers of electoral obligations.
Now there is never a dull day under Labour. Daily news headlines explain who benefitted from which decision, which environmental policy was going to be dismantled and other surprises.
Labour’s overconfidence and arrogance is what one would usually expect after two legislatures, not just two years.
In the Maltese political game, Labour does its utmost to defend its stance by comparing itself to the previous Nationalist administration. This defensive strategy will win applause at coffee mornings and at staged public meetings but will not impress the significant niche of voters who feel no particular urge to vote for the same party in subsequent elections.
The recent local council election results give substance to such an argument. Indeed, the Nationalist Party managed to halve the difference compared to the previous round of similar elections and now seems to be moving out of its defeatist resignation that was so evident a year ago.
Given Labour’s self-inflicted political descent, the PN has a field day in pointing out examples of bad governance. This does not absolve the PN of past experiences, however, the discerning voter can make his own comparisons without the need of partisan preaching.
The ‘movement’ concept used by Labour in 2013 might also be used against it in 2018
In such a context, the PN has two and a half years to show that it has redeemed itself from the reasons which cost its 2013 defeat and that it can really revive itself as a government that promotes stability, well-being and a decent quality of life.
Simon Busuttil has everything to gain by presenting himself as a calm, moderate, dialogic leader to voters who are shunned by the strong-man populism and condescending sarcasm of Muscat.
The prevailing political situation also offers a limited window of opportunity for Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party. AD is very often a catalyst as regards various policies but political effectiveness is also about image, charisma, strategy, resources, grassroots activism, media, mobilisation and other factors such as the reflexivity of voters.
So far, floating voters have preferred to switch from one major party to the other, believing it is a safer bet for voters’ aspirations. In a scenario of increasingly reflexive and discerning voters, electoral majorities can go as quickly as they come.
Floating voters may choose the safest party, switchers might choose the party which they believe satisfies their immediate needs and new voters might be less inclined to follow family tradition.
Besides, one should also take account of voters who traditionally vote for a party but feel let down when it is in government over what they deem to be favouritism to new rent-seekers and opportunists. And I hear that there are quite a number of such disappointed Labourites.
The next two and a half years might also be characterised by historical moments that might further shift the political landscape.
Labour might turn for the better, possibly through an effective reshuffle and a sober strategy of political humility. Labour might realise that non-core voters are more important than rent-seekers who are only there when the sun shines.
The PN will obviously try to show that it is the best bet to move Labour out of power and AD will hope for an increased level of distrust of mainstream politicians.
But there might also be other significant moments. For example, citizens’ social movements and vocal forces on the left and right might well find their place in this country too. Saturday’s protest by Front Ħarsien ODZ can be a good gauge of non-partisan citizen mobilisation.
Pardoxically, the ‘movement’ concept that was used by Labour in 2013 might also be used against it in 2018.
No theory can, however, predict such political moments because the future is never written in advance.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.