Rational votes of constructive wrath

Ian Refalo, as a psychotherapist, claims to have analysed the electoral campaign from a "psychological" perspective (The Psychology Of The Electoral Campaign, March 19). His basic "armchair" thesis was that the campaign was without significant or tangible issues, and therefore it became a battleground for political parties, instead, to conduct their emotional campaigns. This claim is inaccurate, and it almost restates the classic psychological debate regarding determinants of voter preferences by the relative supremacy of either rational cognitions or, alternatively, of hot emotions.

While positive and negative emotions are part of every political campaign, I would suggest that a more objective analysis would suggest that the election victory was determined by rational deliberation in combination with salient emotions. First of all, it would be false to claim there were no significant issues in the 2008 campaign. Without a doubt, there were two primary issues: leadership and policy. The choice of the electorate showed that this was the determining factor for Lawrence Gonzi's successful and clearly articulated campaign. This was not the kind of contest that Alfred Sant may have wanted; but from the beginning, it also was Dr Sant's choice to wage an issueless campaign: "choose Labour" and "change", complete with its "bland-looking vertical containers" and its cobbled cut-and-paste manifesto with "misprints".

It was Dr Sant who also had hoped to rely almost entirely upon a "negative" campaign, attacking alleged PN "mismanagement" and "corruption". The MLP campaign also included its "positive" elements: for example, the removal of the energy surcharge and the introduction of a reception class in early education. However, a rational and critical analysis of those elements by the PN campaign exposed their deficiencies. Energy costs and education, however, are agenda-setting national issues, and they should be exploited, as they were, by both sides of the Red-Blue political divide.

The surprise of this electoral campaign was the ability and power of Dr Gonzi to lead and to persuade. Yes, personally, Dr Gonzi was always ahead in the head-to-head public preferences over Dr Sant. But the "gonzipn" factor was not superficially due to a likable smile (blunted on MLP billboards), or to the potential "cult of personality", or to simple charisma. Those elements are applied more appropriately to the MLP's 12-year love affair or regard for Dr Sant after his 1996 election victory. True enough, however, Lawrence and Kate Gonzi also were a refreshing charismatic team.

The winning Lawrence Gonzi factor was evident as the large voter empathy for MLP party preference was reversed through the course of the five-week campaign by the PN's successful appeal to reason and "peace of mind". It was astonishing to see the lively and articulate rational discourse of Dr Gonzi, complete with his sincerity and his various rational and emotional manifestations. The positive logic of his PN platform was presented clearly and passionately; and also it was spelled out in their print and television media campaigns. Furthermore, it was made tangible by the Prime Minister's personal contact through internet and mass meetings.

And much of the MLP "negative" campaign was reversed by returning the charges by changing their negative meanings into a positive energy for the PN campaign: A turning-point was Dr Sant's failure and confrontation with University students and new voters; a reception class was turned into a "repeater class"; misplaced charges of "DNA" were turned into true-Blue gold. The Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando issue was taken into Dr Pullicino Orlando's own hands in his personal confrontation with Dr Sant, and made more positive versus Dr Sant.

In the end, it was the strength of the rational policy argument that prevailed in the 2008 campaign, much like the 2003 campaign in support of Malta's European membership. The MLP leadership was weak and defective, as the case was argued by the PN, even though people would have preferred to vote MLP, if only reason could allow such a rational choice. The initial emotional choice of voters may have favoured MLP victory. But, the way forward for the country, with its policies and leadership and with all its fresh possibilities, lay with Dr Gonzi and the PN, not with the potential debacle threatened by a government under Dr Sant and an unready MLP "plan," for another "new beginning". Even Dr Sant's suggestion to potentially reopen accession negotiations would have been deemed "crazy", if only such consistent idiosyncratic policy were just an insult to the electorate's twice backing of the EU in 2003.

Fear and trust were emotions of the 2008 campaign, and these were focused in the choice between the two candidates for Prime Minister. Voters also were elective in their choices for individual candidates. It was rational analysis of the immediate threat to future benefits that provoked the fears; and it was the rational persuasion of a national leader of international stature that won the majority confidence. This was despite the general wish of the electorate to see a potentially successful MLP government, and despite the disappointments many PN supporters may have felt, and despite the potentially fatiguing PN presence in government and long-term absence of the MLP from government.

The number of voting voters, in their rational or negative emotional choice, declined from 97 per cent to 93 per cent.

Yet, also, rational assessment of the risk from smaller parties was taken into account by those who voted, and small parties fared unwell, effectively rendering Malta a two-party system. A number of MLP voters gave their first preference to the PN. And a number of PN voters who would have preferred to vote MLP were constrained not to do so. In the end, a narrow democratic victory was awarded to reason, over other alternative judgements and emotions. Now, all kinds of constructive political possibilities for Malta and Gozo have been unleashed by the decision of voters. It is up to the political parties and the government to move forward, or else risk the rational wrath of future voters.

Dr Clemmer is a social psychologist.


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