MaltaToday, 20 Feb 2008 | The paralysing fear of losing

NEWS ANALYSIS | Sunday, 20 February 2008

The paralysing fear of losing

With the Nationalist Party re-inventing itself as GonziPN and aggressively campaigning to recover niches of discontentment in its middle class constituency, Labour’s more cautious campaign risks losing steam. Has the MLP’s campaign peaked too early or is Labour avoiding any risk not to endanger a near certain victory, asks JAMES DEBONO?

Surely the PN’s campaign has all the hallmarks of chessboard moves crafted by a select few in the party’s strategy meetings. Scoring low in all pre-electoral surveys, partly due to disaffection among its former voters, the PN had to show some zest and get ready for some real electoral graft.
The PN seems to have adopted Alfred Sant’s own pre-electoral motto: “who dares wins.” Not only is the PN daring to win but Gonzi is gambling his own political future by running a one-man show.
On the other hand Labour, which dared a lot before the election by proposing tax-free overtime and halving the surcharge, seems intent on projecting the idea of a serene change personified by the graceful ballerina billboard – an image which contrasts with the party’s turbulent history and past reputation for violence.
In contrast to Labour’s more cautious campaign, the PN has embarked on an electoral spree giving voters a menu of tax cuts which make Labour’s earlier proposals pale in comparison. While the PN’s last-minute rush of promises betrays their sense of panic, the MLP risks losing the initiative after having set the agenda on their long pre-electoral campaign.
The PN has surely raised the stakes through its GonziPN stratagem. Surely Gonzi has a lot of personal charm and has a reputation for integrity. Compared to Alfred Sant, he generates more trust in voters. The problem is that discerning voters will see this as an attempt to whitewash the misdeeds of his ministers. Gonzi’s ministers remain Labour’s best asset, providing the ammunition for Labour’s campaign. Labour’s only witty billboard so far has been the one depicting ministers’ faces with the pun that together they can make everything possible, even corruption.

Qassati and scaremongering
Unlike Labour, the PN has to fight this election campaign on three fronts: Labour, AD and AN. While its negative billboard and TV ad campaign has so far focused on Sant’s past blunders (“qassati”) and Labour’s old faces, PN pundits on the media have left no stone unturned to dissuade past PN voters from defecting to AD. Scaremongering is the name of the game. The greater Alfred Sant’s fear rating in the PN’s bestiary, the less easy it will be for voters to switch to new pastures.
Yet such scaremongering could backfire, especially when voters know very well that no fundamental issue like membership in the European Union is at stake. They might well ask: what are we risking by voting AD apart from Lawrence Gonzi’s political career? Middle-class voters could also feel their private space invaded by email shots warning them of the approaching apocalypse if Labour wins by default because of their vote.
Still, AD has so far failed to give its campaign a rallying cry and a face apart from that of Carmel Cacopardo. Surely Cacopardo provides a role model for former Nationalists who do not feel that Gonzi’s PN is their party. But being so small, AD risks being seen as a one-man band with Harry Vassallo himself overshadowed by the newcomer.
AD’s billboards also lack a human touch. The “coalition” theme is somewhat alien and hard to explain to voters who associate coalitions with Byzantine complexities of Italian politics, oblivious to the fact that 22 out of 27 EU government are run by coalitions. By emphasising the need for “change”, AD risks being overtaken by a landslide for Labour.
What is clear by the second week of AN is still uncharted territory for PN strategists and might even pose more difficult dilemmas because any attempt to accommodate AN’s medieval vision of life could alienate the PN’s liberal wing. Perhaps fear of AN was behind the PN’s decision not to mention cohabiting couples in its manifesto. Ironically AN’s surprise pronouncement in favour of gay partnerships has complicated matters leaving the PN in the awkward position of being more conservative than AN.

Voting with their remote control
In its bid to reach out to dim-witted voters whose worldview is limited to junk TV, the PN risks alienating the sophisticated voter.
By resorting to a song which puts art at the service of power (a charade often employed by Stalinist administrations), and by resorting to celebrities like Eileen Montesin, the PN has reinvented itself as Malta’s most kitsch party. It also reinforces the perception that the only people defecting to the Nationalist camp are those who have a stake in keeping the status quo.
Yet by having so many personalities on board the PN could be in more in synch with first-time voters who associate Eileen Montesin with Becky, rather than with her 1980s role in Xandir Malta. The party’s kitsch image could also be in synch with the party’s new voting base – rich property speculators with a peasant mentality.
The 17000 first time voters could determine the outcome of the election. By focusing on this category through the internet, the PN could make inroads in a category whose political memory dates back to the 2003 referendum and Alfred Sant’s claim that “the partnership” had won.
While the PN strategy hinges on Gonzi’s uplifting message, coupled with a parallel scaremongering campaign, Labour’s campaign seems intent on preserving its lead by keeping former Nationalist voters who have switched to Labour, comfortable.
Every survey conducting by MaltaToday in the past year has shown a small but consistent shift from PN former voters to Labour. Having gone all the way by converting to Labour rather than stopping midway to support AD, it is highly unlikely that these voters shift back to the PN. Conscious of this precious shift, Labour is afraid of rocking the boat too much.
The problem for Labour is that the loony elements within the party, ranging from a Mosta mayor opposed to civil marriages, to an MP who wants hunters to shoot on rats all year round, will always rock the boat.
On the other hand, through its corporate “new beginning” image the MLP risks appearing too bland for voters who might be tempted to ask whether there is any difference between the two parties. Themes like good governance give the impression that the choice is simply between two rival management teams rather than between two alternative visions.
With two weeks to go to D-day, Labour cannot afford to stand idle as the PN takes the initiative. Yet it cannot afford a single blunder. Ultimately Labour’s worst enemy could be a paralysing fear of losing it all at the very last moment.

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