MaltaToday | 16 March 2008 | Choosing an electable leader

NEWS | Sunday, 16 March 2008

Choosing an electable leader

James Debono

Back in 1992 when choosing their next leader, the Labour delegates had the foresight to dump Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s deputy and party stalwart Joe Brincat to choose between two sophisticated intellectuals previously sidelined by Dom Mintoff: Lino Spiteri and Alfred Sant.
Between the two, in the final round they chose the candidate with the lightest political baggage: a 44-year-old playwright called Alfred Sant who promised them a fresh start. After four years, they were rewarded by an ephemeral victory at the polls.
Sixteen years later the Labour delegates are called again to determine whether to elect a leader moulded in their own image, as Joe Brincat was in 1992, or someone who can make the party electable in distant 2013.
The writing is on the wall for the delegates who will assemble to elect their new leader in around four weeks’ time. Out of seven elections contested in the past 27 years, Labour only won a majority of votes once.
The MLP’s only victory took place when Alfred Sant took over and transformed his party ridding it of a legacy of violence and corruption which had rendered it unelectable under Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.
Ironically, the party not only got its best ever result since 1981 under Sant’s helm in 1996 but on that occasion the MLP also achieved its best result in PN’s middle class heartlands – the 9th and 10th districts.
On that occasion the MLP increased its vote on these two districts by a staggering 3.2%. The shift in these two districts was even greater than that in the first four MLP leaning districts, where the MLP only gained 2.6%. Labour also increased its vote in Gozo by 5%.
This goes a long way towards showing that Labour’s only success in three decades came when the party managed to convince part of the middle class and former PN voters to switch sides.
Labour only became electable when the party abandoned its old Labour antics and aggressively campaigned for good governance based on meritocracy. Surely the MLP’s opportunistic stand on hunting and VAT also played a part in 1996. Yet the overall image of Alfred Sant in 1996 was that of a modernising and young reformer. He was seen by the electorate as a breath of fresh air,
Yet following his epochal clash with Dom Mintoff, who brought down his government after just two years, Sant became increasingly a bitter man. Sant’s troubles with Mintoff had cost the party a loss of 2.5% in its working class heartlands in the first four electoral districts. But the party lost even more votes in middle class areas. In the 9th and 10th districts the party’s support fell to 34%.
By 2003 the MLP’s vote in these two districts had slumped back to the same levels it was under Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici: 33.7%.
The way Sant handled the European Union issue derailed his mission to modernise Malta and his party. Once again the party stood for autarky and isolation, an alienating vision for all those who looked at Europe as a way of breaking free from mediocrity.
By staying on as leader after 2003, Sant ignored the writing on the wall. By then his political baggage was heavily loaded with all possible U-turns and sound bites. All this had rendered him unelectable in 2008.
Survey after survey had shown that Sant was the Labour’s main liability while Gonzi was his own party’s best asset. The PN capitalised on this by turning the parliamentary contest into a presidential election, pitting an affable and charismatic Gonzi against a stern and solemn Sant.
In last week’s election Sant was unable to make any substantial inroads among pale blue voters. Labour ignored these surveys, encouraged by local council victory elections which simply showed the party winning by default. The party did increase its vote by 1.3% in the 9th and 10th districts in last week’s elections. But this minimal increase was even less than that experienced by Alternattiva Demokratika.
Although the PN lost more votes in its strongholds (10th, 12th and 13th districts) than in the Labour oriented southern districts, this was mainly attributable to the lack of any strong third party presence in the south.
The MLP only made significant gains in Gozo, where the party gained 2.1%. But this was not enough as the MLP remained 1,500 votes short despite the increase of non-voters in Nationalist districts.
Although Labour is numerically stronger than it was in 1992 when the party polled just 46.5%, after three consecutive defeats the party’s morale must be at its lowest ebb.
In such circumstances, after putting their trust in a eccentric intellectual only to get a semi-victory and four consecutive defeats, the delegates might be tempted to elect a familiar face who speaks their own language. They would be emulating the Tories in the United Kingdom who were rendered unelectable by leaders who pleased party die-hards but were completely out of synch with the electorate.
By electing someone who cannot reach out to the political middle ground, the MLP delegates would be effectively consigning the country to one-party rule.

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