Ready, set, continue...

Published January 6

The election campaign officially starts tomorrow but political parties have been revving up their engines for months. Kurt Sansone takes a look at the long road ahead.

President George Abela will raise the curtain tomorrow on an electoral campaign that has been revving up backstage for months.

Voters will be asked whether they are prepared to jettison the devil they know for the one that they don’t
- Godfrey Baldacchino

The President will do his constitutional duty and dissolve Parliament, officially declaring an election for March 9.

At almost nine weeks, this will be the longest general election campaign since 1987 and one that will put the political parties’ resilience to test.

Surveys conducted by The Sunday Times and confirmed by other pollsters put the Labour Party well ahead at the start of the campaign.

The last survey commissioned by this newspaper in October saw the PL enjoying a 12-point lead over the PN.

A more recent poll by Malta Today carried out after the election of MEP Simon Busuttil as PN deputy leader has seen the gap narrow but not enough to put the parties neck and neck.

Godfrey Baldacchino, a visiting lecturer of sociology and chairman of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta, believes the gap in voter intentions will narrow as election day approaches. But he argues the election is the Labour Party’s to lose.

“The PN will pounce quickly on any faux pas committed by Labour, obliging the PL to play cautious with any dramatic policy initiatives,” Prof. Baldacchino says.

Five years after the PN won the 2008 election by the slimmest of margins in decades, much has happened that may change the status quo.

“The PL has a new name, a new leader and deputy leader, and a determination to appeal to the ideological centre.

“The PN, in spite of Simon Busuttil, is just so much old hat; a weary outfit that has grown too comfortable in office,” Prof. Baldacchino says.

He notes that the 2013 campaign will unfold over an electorate that, other than a 22-month hiatus, has only distant memories of a Labour Government.

This does not mean the PN can be written off, especially at the start of a very long campaign in which it will pull out all the stops to convince the electorate that it is best suited to steer the country during turbulent times.

With low levels of unemployment, and no serious economic damage from the ongoing global financial crisis, Prof. Baldacchino says voters will be asked whether they are prepared to jettison “the devil they know for the one that they don’t”.

He believes the PN will deploy its incumbency to the highest levels of sophistication ever witnessed in political campaigns.

“The key message will be that the Nationalist Party is a safe, tested and responsible pair of hands; and that these turbulent times are not ideal moments during which to ditch proven stewardship for a bunch of feckless amateurs and their bag of tricks,” Prof. Baldacchino says.

At the other end of the political spectrum the Labour message, re-branded under and around Joseph Muscat, will emphasise it is time for a responsible change of government.

The major parties will kick off their respective campaigns with rallies for activists and supporters tomorrow evening. But even as they stoke up enthusiasm so early in the day, party strategists will be fine-tuning their message in the boiler rooms at their headquarters in Ħamrun and Pietà.

Economist Lino Briguglio believes the PN will base its campaign on good economic governance of Nationalist administrations. The party will highlight the fact that Malta has performed much better than all the other EU member states in the Mediterranean region, he says.

This will be countered by the PL’s message that the incumbent administration is saddled by corruption, Prof. Briguglio argues.

He notes that on the economic front the PL will probably hanker on the high cost of living, the low participation rate of women in the labour market and the high rate of early school leavers.

As for Alternattiva Demokratika, Prof. Briguglio believes the third party, which surveys have shown enjoys the support of just one per cent, will emphasise the need to control political party financing, enhance civil rights and strengthen environmental governance.

But in an election campaign dominated by the personality of the party leaders and to a lesser extent the newly-elected deputy leaders – Louis Grech for the PL and Simon Busuttil for the PN – it is not only about what the parties will be saying that counts.

What they will not say and what they will minimise may be as important as the rhetoric they will spew out over the coming weeks.

Water and electricity bills, the Government’s handling of public finances, infrastructural projects, taxes and good governance will all feature prominently during the campaign as will the qualities of the leaders.

But Prof. Briguglio believes there are major issues that will most probably not be given the importance they deserve because speaking about them will mean “loss of votes and money”.

He lists four principle issues: Malta’s backwardness in terms of civil rights because of the excessive influence of the Catholic Church, the environmental damage caused by building contractors, the safety concerns associated with excessive use of fireworks and the strong hunting lobby that is giving Malta a bad reputation.

If the major political parties remain aloof from these thorny issues, fiscal health will be “the unacknowledged elephant in the room” of this campaign, according to Prof. Baldacchino.

With a debt of almost €5 billion, equivalent to 71 per cent of GDP in 2011, the party elected on March 9 would do well to rein in State expenditure to more sustainable levels, he adds.

“Responsible government requires this; even if political parties will trip up over each other in promising more largesse in their campaigns.”

The election campaign comes on the back of a tumultuous year for Parliament and the judiciary. Prof. Baldacchino says the election has been trumped by episodes that discredited the highest institutions and shocked the nation.

“One will expect political parties to address head-on the crisis that faces both the judiciary as much as the legislature,” he insists.

It is a concern shared by Prof. Briguglio, who says Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s good reputation was marred by the “unethical tactics” used to prolong the administration’s life.

Tomorrow marks the opening night of the electoral campaign. The lights are set, the curtain will rise and for the next few weeks the discussion almost everywhere will be hijacked by politics.

The country will come to a virtual standstill, waiting to see who will walk back onto the stage for the curtain call when everything is over on March 10.

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Ignored issues?

Fireworks safety concerns, hunting and environmental damage caused by over-construction will probably be avoided by the two main parties.Fireworks safety concerns, hunting and environmental damage caused by over-construction will probably be avoided by the two main parties.

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