Who will win the next election?
It’s something I’m often asked these days – probably because I got it right all those years back in the 1996 election. Still, I have no idea which party will crack open the champagne on March 10. That said, there’s enough sunlight already to see who’s been sleeping naked at night.
If the job of political strategists is to whip up popular backing for their taskmasters, Nationalist Party voters may come to rue their party’s choice of tacticians – which includes the leadership.
A cardinal misstep was to plump for an interminable campaign. Inevitably, it left PN strategists lancing painful boils trying to defend an administration defined by delayed propriety and haunted by the ghosts of low-octane politics.
An earlier mistake was to fire up the engines too late to counter Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat’s rising popularity stocks since taking over Labour.
Labour’s zestful campaign differs from that of the PN in style but not only. Proudly, on TV, Labour strategists parade their prized trophies – disgruntled PN voters marching into their camp.
There will be, of course, those who view a victorious Labour as helpful at opening gilded doors – but that can’t be true of all, certainly not of upright men like John Bencini or Mario Vassallo Tabone, now eloquent Labour supporters.
There’s the equally refined Kenneth Zammit Tabona and the now maligned Kevin Drake. These are the better known names of several who openly confess to having crossed the political divide.
A promising campaign tack by the Nationalist Party was to anoint the elegant Simon Busuttil deputy leader. It could have worked. He is a good egg, noble in thought.
But he still has to urgently staunch the swing to Labour and produce a convincing election campaign free of dirty tricks. He has to watch out for howlers – which often make him resemble a member of the awkward squad more than a promising 21st-century political leader.
Labour’s campaign is not without its electoral hazards. These lay not in its tactical elements but in the meaning and substance of its electoral pledges. Most crucial is Labour’s energy policy, a sea change in electricity generation on which hangs Labour’s political capital, not an easy project.
In as much as Labour appears to be stumping its critics, it was PN strategists who best helped, early on, to bring Labour in with a chance.
Tacticians tasked to hurriedly discredit Labour’s gas plant project in the first week were forced to put together a litany of claims that progressively grew suspect: they first wrote off Labour’s project as an elections gimmick, then described it as technically impossible, then said it relied on mythical 10-year gas supply agreements, then swore only four ships existed capable of servicing worldwide LNG demand. They made the mistake of being dogmatic.
Voters, not sure who was telling the truth, trawled the internet only to discover that 10-year gas supply accords, larger plants built in three years, and a proclivity everywhere for gas-fired electricity generation, were in fact a reality.
At this stage, PN strategy planners should have escorted the party out of the fray. It didn’t happen. PN frontline speakers were left sounding unready, uneasy and, worse, condescending.
Weeks before a new government is formed, many firmly believe their energy tariffs will go down by 25 per cent if Labour wins.
A clear risk by Labour was to make their campaign look deliciously seductive and youthful – but what about hard-nosed governing skills?
That’s yet to be seen. Still, so far, there has been no shortage of nimble political footwork, no serious gaffes that betray a lack of skills and talent.
Its plans for the next five years are specifically spelt out. Campaign messages stress inclusion and national unity – tasteful themes indeed – and remain ethical, unlike the PN’s latest clumsy billboard blunder.
Tactfully, PN leaders are portrayed as the Mormon Gods of the World – exalted. Deadly traps, including a three-year-old mischievous tape recording aimed at soiling the reputation of Toni Abela, are sidestepped deftly. Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party hopes to catch up.
In the end, it is events too that decide elections. As the oil purchase scandal rages on beyond the Government’s grip – a windfall of rich pickings for Labour – any sane party strategist would have long bounded Cabinet Minister Austin Gatt and others off to the changing rooms.
In the eyes of his critics, Gatt is a China shop permanently attached to bulls, hopeless at both reform and in protecting the national interest from the greedy grabs of political arm-candies. And he epitomises big- headed political bullies.
Still, Gatt is not a lone sad factor in a campaign that sharply contrasts Labour’s exuberant bid to become this year’s go-for party.
So who is going to win the next election? Ah, well, that’s quite a different story.