Six newcomer MPs Alex Borg, Keith Azzopardi Tanti, Mark Anthony Sammut, Alison Zerafa Civelli, Darren Carabott and Jo Etienne Abela talk about how they managed to get elected, and in some districts, even outshine or replace powerful incumbents. The secret is house visits and remaining close to people, they say.
Alex Borg – elected on the 13th district for the PN
The 26-year-old Gozitan lawyer, Mr World Malta, waterpolo player and gym enthusiast-turned-politician decided he wanted to contest the election in November 2020 and started knocking on doors from day one.
“House visits made me realise what people really want from politicians – they simply want someone who listens to them,” he said.
“I would sit on their sofa, listen intently without interrupting them, and then explain to them what I stand for and how that might help them live better lives.”
Borg said most of them speak of their suffering, and he himself has had a fair share of it, after his father was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013.
His father, Tony Borg, served as Fontana mayor and former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono’s widely acclaimed chief of staff for 15 years.
“When he was diagnosed, doctors give him six-and-a-half months to live. But he was a strong fighter, and lived for six-and-a-half years,” Borg said.
“He would have loved to knock on doors with me, and I really miss that I could not do that with him.”
Borg secured a whopping 6,108 first count votes, becoming the PN candidate with most votes in his district and surpassing party veterans Chris Said and Claudette Buttigieg by over 3,000 and 5,500 votes, respectively.
Borg is a practising lawyer by profession, but before that he played waterpolo with the national team, was a model and won the Mr World Malta contest in 2020.
“I try to be positive, even when I criticise, because people long for positivity,” he said.
“They also appreciate it when you stay humble and close to them, when you meet them in public squares, bars and social events. And I want to remain like that – I want to remain the people’s politician.”
Keith Azzopardi Tanti – elected on the 1st district for the PL
The 38-year-old mayor of Pietà was the first candidate to be elected on the first district after securing 3,774 first count votes and outperforming incumbents Aaron Farrugia (2,363), Jose Herrera (2,130) and Deo Debattista (2,290).
During the campaign, Azzopardi Tanti famously invited former prime minister Joseph Muscat to one of his campaign events, igniting rumours that Muscat was planning a return to public life.
Azzopardi Tanti dismissed the controversy.
“I wouldn’t say I got those votes because of Joseph Muscat’s one appearance in my campaign. I invited him because I respect him, but it was absolutely not a game changer,” he said.
“I invited him for two minutes, and just like I invited him, I also invited Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and Alex Agius Saliba for an endorsement.”
He started out in the party when he was 16 and was first elected to the Pietà council in 2013 and has since been serving as mayor.
He is an accountant by profession, but during the months leading up to the election he spent Mondays to Fridays knocking on doors after work.
On Saturdays, he would be at his campaign offices in Marsa, Pietà, Santa Venera and Valletta, seeing people and tending to their needs. He then spent Sundays meeting people in bars, clubs and at social events.
“People would most often ask for help with things they have every right to, like for example, how to apply for a government or housing scheme, or a blue badge, or social benefits,” he said.
“Appearing on the media does help during the campaign but being close to the people remains the most effective way to do it.”
Mark Anthony Sammut – elected on the 4th and 10th districts for the PN
The 36-year-old electrical engineer won big last weekend, managing to get elected in a district in the south and another in the north, which is very unusual for a PN candidate.
He secured 1,904 first count votes on the 4th district and 921 on the 10th district.
On the 4th district he outshined incumbents Jason Azzopardi (1,511), Carm Mifsud Bonnici (1,513) and Ivan Bartolo (241).
Sammut unsuccessfully contested general elections in 2013 and 2017.
“To those newcomers who were not elected I say – I’ve been there, I know what that feels like. But if you remain consistent and persistent, you’ll get there,” he said.
“I don’t hail from a family with an established surname and I don’t have a job in which I help and serve people directly, like doctors and lawyers... and I’m still here. So, if I could do it, you can as well.”
Sammut works for a private IT firm and he is currently trying to adjust parliament hours with his full-time job, which he intends to keep.
He says the secret to success is to remain close to the people.
“I don’t go knocking on doors a year before the election,” he said.
“I went on house visits all year, every year, and used to call people when I couldn’t visit their houses during the pandemic.
“And I’ll be knocking on doors again in two months.”
Sammut said politicians are sometimes tempted to promise favours randomly, knowing full well that they will not be able to keep their promises... he tried to steer clear of that.
“I won’t promise anything I cannot deliver, and if I do promise to help someone in particular, I will work on it and call them back some days later,” he said.
“People trust you when you’re consistent and truthful like that.”
Alison Zerafa Civelli – elected on the 2nd district for the PL
The 44-year-old mayor of Cospicua attributes her political accomplishment to her adolescent years, when she and her friends did voluntary work at Dar it-Tama in Cospicua – a house previously owned by her great-grandmother which was turned into a centre for the families of Cospicua.
“We would gather there and help young children with their homework,” she said.
“Mum and dad encouraged voluntary work greatly and I built and fostered relationships with so many people through my work there.”
Those relationships proved extremely useful when in 2009 she ran for the local election and was elected vice mayor of Cospicua.
She contested the following election and become mayor, a post she has held for nine years. Zerafa Civelli contested a dark red, competitive Labour district and managed to secure 386 first count votes, surpassing incumbent MPs Carmelo Abela (267), Glenn Bedingfield (337) and Byron Camilleri (338).
She got just 100 votes less than minister Clyde Caruana and got elected after him.
“I am still in disbelief. The feedback I was getting was very positive, but I did not expect such an encouraging result,” she said.
Zerafa Civelli is the older sister of the prime minister’s wife, Lydia Abela, but said that she did not involve her sister in her election campaign.
“We are a big a well-known family in Cospicua, so people would frequently ask me about my sisters Lydia and Darleen during house visits. I didn’t mind at all,” she said.
“But I never included Lydia in my campaign. Neither did I invite her to my events... I wanted to get elected on my own merit.”
Zerafa Civelli is a teacher and educator by profession and at this stage intends to keep her job.
“The essence of my campaign was house visits. I met people and heard them, and most of them told me they’re living better lives nowadays,” she said.
“I spoke to young voters on Tiktok... and not in a partisan way”
Darren Carabott – elected on the 1st district for the PN
The 28-year-old Santa Venera minority leader councillor is a practising civil and litigation lawyer, but he rose to fame well before that.
In 2017, when he worked as a NET TV journalist, Carabott chased after former Pilatus Bank chairman Ali Sadr and another employee as they suspiciously walked out of the bank in the middle of the night, carrying several suitcases and refusing to tell him what was in them.
Carabott was elected to the Santa Venera council in 2013, when he was just 18, and when he decided to run for the general election in November 2020, he took to the streets again, this time to speak to people.
“Every day after work, I would go to people’s homes, and they would speak to me about their families, their struggles, and sometimes even ask for legal advice,” he said.
Carabott secured 2,203 first count votes on the first district and was elected ahead of Nationalist Party veteran Mario de Marco.
He also used media wisely.
He would speak about young voters’ issues on Tiktok and Instagram, about adult issues on Facebook, and for the older audiences, he spoke on television and radio.
One video he uploaded to his social media saw him talking about salaries and the rising cost of living with a Big Mac in his hand – a video which went viral on Tiktok and prompted a discussion among young people.
“They were discussing politics without being partisan. And that was my intention, because I never spoke about partisan politics in those kinds of videos, so that all young people could relate to what I was saying,” he said.
Carabott’s family is not a political one.
His father is an upholsterer and his mother a stay-at-home mum, but he believes his family background helped him understand people better.
“I think I had an unfair advantage”
Jo Etienne Abela – elected on the 13th district for PL
When asked why he thinks he got elected, the 46-year-old surgeon gave a very candid reply.
“I think I had an unfair advantage over my fellow candidates, because I’ve been working as a doctor since 1999, and despite emerging into the political scene just now, I have been meeting and helping people ever since I started my practice,” he said.
“But it was not just my profession that helped me. Over the years I have learnt to understand people and identify with their problems.”
Abela has been a consultant surgeon since 2010 and he specialises in pancreatic and gastro-oesophageal surgery.
But despite his profession, he did not take voter support for granted, and for the past six weeks took to the streets knocking on hundreds of doors.
“During the campaign we focused exclusively on house visits, and on some days, we would do 50 house visits in one day,” he said.
And people were extraordinarily receptive. I also ran on the 10th district, where I only managed about 50 house visits in all, and I saw a massive vote difference between the two districts.”
Abela got 1,803 first count votes in Gozo and 547 in the 10th district. In Gozo, he was the third most popular Labour candidate, trailing Clint Camilleri, who got 6,458 votes, and Anton Refalo, who got 5,002.
He does, however, admit a mistake.
“I would have liked to knock on more doors of Nationalist households,” he said.
“I didn’t have much time and the pandemic made it more difficult, so I largely managed Labour households. But if I had to do it again, I would literally knock on each door,” he said.
Abela says he always wanted to become a politician, but at the right time, without letting it interfere with his medical profession.
“This time, the stars seemed to align, because Robert Abela had been urging me to run for some time, Justyne Caruana decided not to seek re-election on my district, and I have to say, the pandemic made my profession seem sexier,” he said, giggling.