At the end of a muted election contest, Jacob Borg looks back at how Russia’s war on Ukraine made an impact on Malta’s general election.
Coverage of the invasion dominated local and world headlines, relegating the opposition party’s big pitch about why it should be trusted in government to near irrelevance.
Heading into the campaign facing an unbridgeable gap, the PN saw its already meek voice all but drowned out by the war coverage.
Journalist and political pundit Peppi Azzopardi sees the timing of events as having helped Labour.
“The PN ran a good campaign but did not reach enough people, as a lot of attention was focussed on the war in Ukraine. People’s initial concern was about the humanitarian crisis, which then also shifted to how the war would impact them.”
Labour seizes initiative
With surveys showing mounting sudden worry about the impact of the war, particularly on people’s pockets, the Labour government was quick to seize the initiative.
The famous pre-election cheques, originally billed as an economic stimulus measure, were quickly repackaged by Prime Minister Robert Abela as a safety cushion against rising prices brought about due to the war.
Surveys indicate these cheques, together with the tax rebates, helped further shore up Labour’s already insurmountable lead.
Adding to this, the prime minister pitched the government’s pledge to freeze energy prices, made last year, as an additional measure to protect Malta from the further pressures on energy prices brought about by the war.
Abela was also able to use the invasion as the perfect platform to come across as a statesman.
“Right after this debate, I will be heading to France for an informal European Council meeting,” he told university students during a mid-campaign debate with Opposition leader Bernard Grech and other political leaders.
His balancing act between campaigning and leading the country did however produce some hiccups.
Abela ended up arriving late for the informal summit in Versailles, due to his participation in the debate.
The prime minister put in a similarly late appearance for Thursday’s European Council meeting about Ukraine, preferring not to miss addressing Labour’s final mass rally prior to the country heading to the polls.
The war proved to be another opportunity for the governing party to seed doubts about the PN’s ability to lead during a crisis.
Playing on his own credibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, Abela questioned during a rally whether the PN can be trusted during a crisis.
“We’re emerging from the pandemic into a world that is facing a new wave of uncertainty and instability, and the need for a stable government has never been greater.
“Can you imagine them leading the country through the pandemic and in this time of global tension with a war in Europe?” Abela told supporters.
As Peppi Azzopardi puts it, in times of instability, people naturally turn to what they know.
Azzopardi says the government’s effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic instilled trust in its ability to lead during a crisis.
The PN leader made a few attempts to put the government on the back foot when it came to Ukraine, but they largely fell flat.
Grech did, however, managed to pull off a political victory with his demands for the government to immediately terminate passport sales to rich Russians.
The prime minister initially baulked at the demands, insisting the due diligence processes carried out by the government are word-class.
Just seven days later, Abela climbed down from this position, with the government announcing the suspension of passport sales to Russians and Belarusians.
The prime minister, and Malta, received another indictment on the international level, with the European Parliament calling on the European Commission to ban citizenship-by-investment schemes.
All four Maltese Labour Party MEPs, Alex Agius Saliba, Josiane Cutajar, Cyrus Engerer and Alfred Sant, voted against, making them the only members of the S&D parliamentary group to do so.
Readers switched on to Ukraine war
Times of Malta editor-in-chief Herman Grech shares his views.
There were two main reasons why there was little overall enthusiasm for the election campaign. For the first time in memory, the winner was evident before the campaign whistle was blown as one survey after the other showed a Labour Party landslide. The main point of discussion of this election became the gap between the two main parties, which resulted in one of the tamest election campaigns in living memory.
Just a couple of days after the campaign kicked off, the first Russian bombs were dumped on Ukraine.
While too many of us turned a blind eye to the wars in Syria, Yemen and different regions of Africa (because of geographical distances and prejudice), this time we saw a war triggered on the EU’s doorstep. The tragic images of bombs raining down on towns, spitting out corpses and millions of refugees forced many of us to rethink our own priorities.
First, it was the outrage of seeing human strife and the fear of the war spilling into Europe, and then we started coming to terms with the economic cost of this conflict. Shortages of certain goods are looming, inflation is almost a guarantee, and we still don’t know the full cost of this war yet.
Issues of importance a month ago seem less important, with existential anxiety replacing worry over issues like COVID-19 and transport. This is evidenced by Times of Malta’s online statistics.
On most days in the past month, there were far more readers engaged with stories related to the Ukraine war in comparison to Malta’s election campaign. Our journalists turned their focus on war-related stories and the reason is obvious – this is one of the biggest international stories of our generation.
Still, despite the war, I saw little adjustment to the political leaders’ script, and their narrative remained focused on promising goodies and tax cuts. The Ukraine war only produced one casualty during Malta’s electoral campaign – the prospective Russian buyer of Maltese passports. Otherwise, for the two main parties, the Ukraine war was the elephant in the room.
We still have to wait and see to know to what extent the war has drilled holes into the electoral pledges.
One thing is certain – it is Robert Abela who benefitted most electorally from the Ukraine war. And this is no surprise. Traditionally, in times of war, voters would stick to the incumbent because in their minds that same leader is perceived as ensuring stability.
Check out the recent polls in France. Since the start of the Ukraine war, Emanuel Macron’s electoral fortunes have increased, and his victory is all but certain in next month’s presidential elections.