Political leaders sparred at the university on Thursday in the first debate during this electoral campaign featuring both Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech.

The debate also featured ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo, Partit Popolari leader Paul Salomone and ABBA head Ivan Grech Mintoff.

But who was the most convincing? 

Jessica Arena spoke to some analysts to get their point of view. Here are their thoughts.

Christopher SciclunaChristopher Scicluna

Cacopardo was the most realistic 

Christopher Scicluna, Times of Malta Deputy Editor

“Grech was more aggressive for most of the time. He repeatedly hit out at the prime minister for ‘copying’ ideas and being slow to decide on issues such as the sale of passports. He also hit hard on the environment and education but I felt he could have done better when he replied to questions on transport.

Initially, Abela was less controversial, trying to project optimism for the future and claiming his party’s credentials to govern on the basis of its experience and record. He also repeatedly, and effectively, questioned the cost of the PN’s ‘ever-changing’ promises.

The prime minister appeared to warm up to the debate with time and was well prepared in speaking on the environment, which is Labour’s Achilles heel.

Abela’s slip possibly was when he was asked what his government would do differently in the wake of the findings of the Caruana Galizia inquiry.

“It is not about what we would do differently but what we have done already,” he said, listing several measures.

Grech pounced on that saying there could be more support for the media and the government could have voted for the PN’s rule-of-law bills.

Cacopardo, came across as the most realistic, particularly when he spoke on energy sovereignty, transport, the environment and the tunnel to Gozo.

He drew some applause when he said his party wants the decriminalisation of abortion and the silence in the hall was impressive as he spoke about this subject.

Verdict: No one won outright but Bernard Grech won on presentation, Abela on detail and Caccopardo on realism.

Ariadne MassaAriadne Massa

Depressing to watch

Ariadne Massa, former Times of Malta head of news and Media Insiders PR strategist

All anyone is talking about right now is the attack on Ukraine, so having to be lured into the playground of local politics for nearly three hours to watch the so-called Leaders’ debate left me wanting to constantly tune out.

It was all the more depressing to see that students had kept the tradition to be rowdy and turned this debate into a messy mass meeting of chants and jeers. The silver lining was that the topics raised showed students were interested in hearing more about the parties’ policies.

ADPD’s Cacopardo summed up the general sentiment of disillusioned voters when he said that while the world was bracing itself for inflation and hikes in prices of essential services, in Malta it felt like Christmas where it was raining cash.

PN leader Grech has matured in the delivery of his message. He humanised issues, was strong on his environmental proposals, lashing at Labour’s metro plan that would only serve to generate more construction waste.

His constant jibes that Labour was copying the PN’s manifesto became childish but he was strong in pointing out that the government was slow in reacting to the Ukrainian crisis and the sale of passports to oligarchs. His call for a break in campaigning for a national march for peace in Ukraine was also welcome.

Labour leader Robert Abela let vanity get the better of him and the students’ chants of adulation kept him grinning from ear to ear for too long. He eventually picked up and although Labour had a disastrous track record on the environment he was persuasive on proposals for urban green reclamation, shore-to-ship projects, electrification and renewable sun and wind resources.

He was also sensitive about the abortion debate and urged the importance of empathy on this subject, which he stressed should not be politicised. However, he took a populist dig when he tried to blame the PN for “attempting to throw soldiers in prison” and stumbled when asked what the government could have done differently with regard to the Caruana Galizia inquiry.

All in all, I doubt the debate enlightened the voters or will have any impact on the electoral result.

Verdict: Maybe because he does not have as much at stake, Caccopardo was the politician who emerged from this debate as the most credible.

Robert MusumeciRobert Musumeci

Grech contradicted himself

Robert Musumeci, architect and lawyer

“Evidently, unlike previous times, university students are no longer concerned about revealing their Labour sympathies. This is the direct result of Labour’s political post-2008 strategy which Abela has clearly sustained.

Grech was occasionally caught in contradicting his own statements. For example, he appears to be “convinced” that, in drawing up its proposals, Labour has emulated the PN. At the same time, Grech insists that Labour lacks vision for the future.

Occasionally, Grech’s statements gave rise to unnecessary doubt. For example, why would he concede that the costings of his manifesto would be published at the “right time”? If nothing else, people are led to think these ‘costings’ are still in the making.

With regard to the property market, Cacopardo’s assertion is, to an extent, correct. The granting of subsidies to potential homeowners, which both the PN and PL appear to promote explicitly, will undoubtedly serve to increase the open market values.

What Cacopardo failed to mention is that all this depends on the current rental market demand remaining firmly active. For some reason, it seems that both the PN and PL fail to view the matter from a comprehensive standpoint.”

Verdict: Judging from the floor, Abela is the winner.

Salvu MalliaSalvu Mallia

All party leaders lacked maturity

Salvu Mallia, television presenter and artist

The first thing that struck me was the weak line of questioning. I expected more from university students but they failed to touch upon topics like greylisting or corruption, for example. I have to say I expected more.

Both Grech Mintoff and Cacopardo made strong contributions and spoke in a way that made sense, with Cacopardo emerging as the particular voice of reason among them all.

Abela, although he came with a barrage of supporters, came off as a bit fake. The constant cheering of Viva l-Labour may have done him more harm than good.

He makes a lot of big promises but, given his track record, it’s difficult to take his populist promises seriously.

Grech, I think, has also slightly fallen into the trap of making populist promises. Nonetheless, I feel like he came off well. He spoke like a statesman and like he has the country’s best interest at heart.

Abela did not give this impression, it feels like he’s focused on advancing the Labour party and its voters.

Overall, both displayed a lack of maturity on certain matters, failing to take a stand on important issues like abortion, for example, but Grech seems to be speaking more honestly.

Verdict: Bernard Grech was the better and more credible speaker

George Vital ZammitGeorge Vital Zammit

University rent-a-crowd

George Vital Zammit, Department of Public Policy, University of Malta

“As the leaders were ushered on stage, we immediately had an inkling of how the first major debate would pan out.

The prime minister was bolstered by a hot-on-heels, rent-a-crowd that cheered and applauded him every step of the debate. The sight of the leader of the opposition being booed as he walked to the podium fell short of the behaviour expected at the University of Malta.

Paul Salomone (Partit Popolari), Ivan Grech Mintoff (ABBA) and Carmel Cacopardo (ADPD) made level-headed contributions in their relatively shorter allocated time, with Grech Mintoff taking the prime minister to task on a number of issues such as the medical visas (where he implied direct intervention from Castille) and what he alleged were “failed COVID measures”.

Bernard Grech was on attack mode and, while brandishing the published electoral manifesto, spared no digs for the PM, such as the PM’s earnings and Labour’s transport proposal which he deemed unfeasible.

Robert Abela equally spared no punches, levelling a number of critical shots at Grech, such as unpublished costings and a frequently updated manifesto.”

Verdict: No winners or losers, it would be too simplistic to determine.

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