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Underneath the local vote

What, Exactly, Was the electorate telling the political parties in last week's local elections? The event was more important than polling of voter intentions carried out by the political parties and some of the media. The parties keep their polls' results to themselves. The media publish them. Polls are based on a small sample. Local elections, aside from returning local councillors, effectively poll a third of the electorate.

Local voters do not focus on local issues alone. They are influenced by the national situation and the pitch of the political parties. Unending political confrontation in our islands amalgamates all of these factors together. That is what happened again yesterday week.

In addition there were a few highlights typical of low Maltese politics, such as the personal targeting of the Labour mayor of Rabat, Frank Fabri - another boomerang which duly returned to bash the head of its thrower.

Whatever went into the opinion-forming pot, the stew dished out is there for all to smell, whether those who cooked it did so through the ballot box, or by staying at home. The next stage of the policies devised and practised by the parties, and the government, will depend on how the political parties interpret voters' intentions.

What those who did vote intended came through unambiguously. A very large majority told the Nationalist Party, and thereby the government, that they wanted no truck with it. Among that majority, most made up of Labour sympathisers, there were those who were dissatisfied with how their local PN councillors had performed. Those without strong political fervour, or who are uncommitted to any political banner would have joined those who would vote Labour in any event.

That led to the PN losing control of three councils, and retaining only a very reduced majority in most others, including their Sliema and Birkirkara citadels. The MLP gained a famous relative victory.

Nationalists who demonstrated their mood by not going to vote also spoke with eloquence. Over 15,000 stayed away, compared with the same elections in 2003, although the number of registered voters had increased by 6,000, about half of whom a major party would expect to vote for it.

In 2003 there was the referendum on EU membership. That induced a higher voter turnout than is usual in local elections, both from the PN as well as the MLP. It is probable, though, that a large chunk of the PN's absent voters yesterday week was made up of individuals disaffected with "their" government.

Only those who formulate their high policy can say how the PN and the government will respond to the heavy one-two on the chin given by those who strayed from the fold and did not vote 'blue', whether at the ballot box or by staying at home.

There are strong hints that the Prime Minister will be pressed to buckle down to amputate and infuse new blood in his Cabinet and parliamentary secretaries team. Some will also query the line that the result "ensures" that Alfred Sant will "remain" MLP leader, allowing Lawrence Gonzi to "win" the 2008 general election, which will be "presidential".

There are also clear indications that the government will change track. The Prime Minister responded to the devastating blow of the size of Labour's majority by saying that he will take due note, but would not be blown off the path he feels is in the best interest of Malta and its people. He used the partial pension reform proposals as an example.

The PN general secretary was less dignified. He placed emphasis on a more party-political reaction. Not realising the implications of again imprudently speaking for the government, he pronounced its strategy: the "first" three years were used to rebuild and reform, the "next" two years would pay more attention to "individual" needs.

Among other things expect, therefore, that the coming winter Budget Speech will tell that income tax will be reduced from 2007. The PM added a litre of fuel to nascent expectations on Tuesday, saying that the tax reforms to be reported to him by June will be in the pre-Budget document.

If any reform is driven by political considerations, rather than financial and economic sense, it will fashion a time bomb to go off after the general election. There is room for improvement in the tax structure. The tax-take, though, cannot be juggled with if the public finances are to continue to move in the right direction in a sustainable manner.

Considerable evasion still takes place. One can combine a tougher squeeze on it with restructuring of tax bands and the mini-max relationship between lowest and highest thresholds.

But the government is in no position to forfeit ongoing revenue. Even should the structural deficit be bridged, there remains the massive public debt to contend with. Privatisation proceeds, mostly from Maltacom and the Bank of Valletta, could dent the debt, by around a third. The servicing cost on the remainder will still gobble around Lm45 million annually in interest alone, irrespective of whether the public debt-ratio-to-nominal-GDP falls.

The Prime Minister is signalling a belief that GDP growth is yielding and will yield higher income tax revenues. He emphasises the real growth reported for 2005, on the face of it a respectable 2.5 per cent, realised through an acceleration between July and December.

I suggest he takes a deeper look to analyse the extent to which that statistical figure is due to the sharp change in inventories (and errors and omissions) over 2004. He would also be well advised to ponder on the fact that Gross National Income in 2005 is estimated to be quite lower than GDP (because of net out-payments).

Dr Gonzi is a politician. He minds, perhaps not terribly, losing successive local elections as PN leader, and the first European Parliament election. Above all, though, he wants to win his first general election at the helm. That is natural enough. If, in the process, national policy becomes a handmaiden to political exigency the country will lose out. If he does win on that basis in 2008, he will find that he has lost out.

Exactly as Eddie Fenech Adami would have done had the Nationalists, and not Labour, won in 1996. The massive structural deficit, for which even Dr Gonzi, not at all to his credit, continues to blame Labour, would have been wailing in the lap of its natural parents. The report on the financial situation and prospects, which remained a secret between John Dalli, the Finance Minister who presented it, and Prime Minister Fenech Adami, should be required reading for Dr Gonzi, who now fills both roles.

Should he lose in 2008 he could join Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, the former Labour leader and PM who did not win any general election, in relative obscurity. For a man of integrity, that would not be worse than losing credibility.

Credibility IS a basic ingredient of integrity for all politicians. The local elections of March 11 had a lot to tell the Labour Party, too, including some things that do not immediately meet the eye. In terms of result, as with goals in football, what counts is the share of the votes netted, and how it translates into power.

There can be doubt that Labour scored a resounding victory. For the Nationalists to try to minimise it by carping over hard government choices, egoism, misleading propaganda, and low turnout attributed to Nationalist grass-root absenteeism, is pathetic. The MLP took local council seats from the PN, wrested control from it in three important localities, and totted up a thumping absolute majority of the votes cast.

Among the votes garnered by the MLP there would have been those of some disaffected Nationalists, making the ultimate protest by switching sides, probably no more than a few hundred. Those combining a blue leaning with disaffection blues over local issues, such as in Marsascala and Qui-si-sana, backed Josie Muscat (in the former) and Alternattiva Demokratika.

The huge majority of the MLP's votes came from Labour supporters and an uncommitted element who felt that, on the local and national level, the MLP was a better alternative to the Nationalists. The PN lost out in its mainly stronghold third of the Maltese Islands because so many more of its voters than usual protested by staying in.

Why, Though, did Labour receive, from an increased electorate, some 4,400 fewer votes than it did in the comparable 2003 local elections, a drop of nine per cent? The decline in the MLP's absolute vote did not escape its leader, Alfred Sant. He did not highlight what the media had missed, but referred to it indirectly.

As the result became known on Sunday, and the PN had already put up the excuse of Nationalist grass-root absenteeism, Dr Sant observed in passing that one could say that there were Labour voters too who stayed at home.

The question why? remains, and the MLP will be asking that of itself, in its internal deliberations. The party conducted a slick campaign, combining local and national issues with drive and vigour, to Dr Sant's careful script. His practice of allocating "marks" for performance to the local councils in contention, with the Labour-led always in the alpha range, was ridiculed by the PN.

It was a populist exercise. A cunning idiom to tickle the fancy of Labour supporters. It even led Dr Gonzi to waste time over it, in addition to tripping by joining his minions in the attack on Rabat's Labour mayor, perhaps as a mismatched antidote to Labour's targeting of Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela, whose base is Rabat.

Why, that carefully thorough campaign and all, did the Labour vote actually drop, when one would have expected to rise to reflect the fact that the PN was running with its tail between its legs, while that of the MLP's was up? The deputy leader for party affairs, Michael Falzon, offered an explanation. "One cannot compare this result with 2003, when the turnout was so high because of the EU referendum," he told The Times on Wednesday. "One has to compare it with 2000, when the turnout was 70 per cent. The MLP has actually gained votes, not lost 4,600, as some are saying."

Dr Falzon insisted that "any comparisons with 2003 are bound to give skewed results".

Not quite so, surely. The 2003 turnout was higher than usual because it was twinned with the EU referendum, certainly. That also implied a higher than usual Labour turnout, as Labourites who favoured joining the EU went to cast their Yes vote. Why should one suppose, though, that those same Labourites did not gave their preferences to Labour candidates, when it came to scrutinising the list for local council hopefuls?

The Absolute Drop in the Labour vote a week ago over 2003 cannot be explained away like that nor, I suspect, will Dr Falzon and the rest of the leadership be doing so behind closed doors.

The point of public interest will be how the MLP addresses what it identifies as the cause(s) for the unexpected show of relative Labour apathy at times like this, when the Nationalist government is so unpopular, even though such apathy equates to only a fourth of that shown by Nationalists who ignored their party's pleas to vote.

Labour holds a strong hand of cards. It is ahead by default - the Nationalists have aged in office. The government was not born in 2003, as its general secretary implied with the "first three lean years" followed by "two years of plenty" strategy. Labour can also assert that it has a refreshed team, carefully preparing itself for office.

While remaining committed to the reality of EU membership, it can point out that it is not and could never be the heaven-on-earth or panacea for our economic ills projected by the PN, and that, ultimately, we still have to compete and survive through our wits and skills.

The MLP is going well beyond doing that. And in the process, risking. Stress on the middle class, without a mere reference to the working class by some leading Labour exponents, jars.

Emphasis on the tax burden, implying that Labour would slash taxes, including VAT on dining out, with scant reference to resolutely enforcing fiscal morality, raise questions whether, even if ideology is no longer central to the script, one should give such alien hostages to fortune.

Dr Falzon, in his interview with The Times, was not convincing over the total 2006 Labour vote relative to 2003. He was spot on, though, when he said that last week's local election results place a big burden on Labour's shoulders. "We have more responsibilities to bear, both on a local and on a national level," he told Natalino Fenech. "We must remain humble with the people, whom we are all in duty bound to serve. We have to strive even more to fulfil people's expectations..."

Building and managing expectations is a big part of politics. The expectations built up by a major party in Opposition, potentially on the doorstep to governing, must take into account the time when promises will have to be redeemed. Especially when the Labour leader is time-framing a substantial part of the redemption to happen within six-months of taking office.

What do the local election results tell Alternattiva Demokratika? It is hard to see how Harry Vassallo, its engaging and earnest chairman, could read good tidings in a sharp drop in the number of votes it obtained. This was a test to see what AD could do when the going was good.

It ended up doing quite badly overall, rather than suggesting that it could become a stronger third party to act as thorn in the public debate, if not in the House of Representatives, to the two main parties, and to the people's conscience.

It is positive, at least, that the outcome has not dispirited Dr Vassallo. A small oasis of optimism alleviates somewhat the desert within in the political picture.

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