‘GonziPN’ might have worked in 2008. But not ‘RobertPL’ in 2027...

Simply put: he is going to have to address the root cause of all this anger, sooner or later (and it is debatable – to say the least – whether he even can...).

Prime Minister Robert Abela talking to reporters after the special Cabinet meeting at Ta' Qali (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Prime Minister Robert Abela talking to reporters after the special Cabinet meeting at Ta' Qali (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Something, somewhere, doesn’t quite add up. (Or maybe it does: but I’m too crap at mathematics, to figure out exactly how...)

Nonetheless, the numbers speak for themselves. And so does this headline from last Sunday’s Independent: “PN marginally ahead of PL, but more people trust Robert Abela than Bernard Grech.”

“If an election were to be held tomorrow, the PN would receive a marginal 0.4% more votes than the PL [...] It would translate into a mere 1,500 votes, incidentally similar to the difference with which the PN won its last election in 2008.”

Now: if this were the only indication, of what effectively amounts to a COLOSSAL reversal of fortunes for the two major parties... I’d be little wary of placing too much credence in it, myself. (No offence or anything: but surveys do occasionally turn out to be wrong, you know...)

But it’s not the only indication: far from it. Last July, MaltaToday published a remarkably similar survey, in which the PN actually led Labour by a slightly higher margin (0.6%). And while two polls, in the space of two months, might still not be enough to firmly establish a ‘trend’... our December 2022 poll had already registered the beginning of a decline for Labour, accompanied by slow (but perceptible) gains by the PN.

Clearly, then, those two surveys cannot be altogether off-the-mark. Something must have happened, over the past two years,  to virtually eviscerate Labour’s previously ‘unassailable’ electoral advantage.

But this only brings us to the part that doesn’t add up.  Somewhat bizarrely, the same two surveys also indicate that Robert Abela is more ‘trusted’, as a party leader, than Bernard Grech; and the difference - 36% to 29% - is significantly higher than the 0.4% deficit that divides the two parties themselves.

It turns out, then, that Robert Abela is a lot (but a LOT) more popular, than the party he leads. And this, too, should remind us of the 2008 election: which the PN had won by a whisker, largely thanks to a strategy (which it would later regret) of reducing itself to an extension of its own leader... through the notorious slogan, ‘GonziPN’.

Labour, too, did something similar in the 2022 election. Perceiving (rightly, with hindsight) that its leader was by far its biggest marketable asset, against the PN’s Bernard Grech: it plastered Robert Abela, together with his wife Lydia, on billboards all over the island... under the slogan, ‘FUTUR SABIH!’ (Translation: ‘Look at us, how beautiful we are! THAT’s how beautiful your own future could be, too!’)

Sure enough, the strategy worked on both occasions: and in 2008, in particular, Gonzi’s popularity was arguably the ONLY factor that secured such a wafer-thin majority for the PN (in an election that most considered ‘destined’ to be won by Labour).

Today, on the other hand? The situation is both similar to, and different from, the 2008 scenario, at the same time.

Let’s start with that 0.4% deficit between the two parties. If you ask me, the most alarming detail for Labour, in this survey,  is not so much that ‘the PN would win an election tomorrow’... even for the simple reason that:

a) there isn’t any election tomorrow;

b) the survey results would probably be different, if there were;

c) three-and-a-half years is a heck of a long time in politics.

No, I’d say it’s more that ‘the PN would win an election, tomorrow’... even though the vast majority of Labour-voters, who are currently forsaking their own party in droves, are NOT actually planning on voting PN, at all!

As with our own, the Independent surveys suggests that most of those disgruntled Labourites are still gravitating towards the burgeoning ‘Party of Non-Voters’: which currently stands at around 17%.

Effectively, this implies two things: one, that the Nationalist Party’s majority could easily grow to much more than a mere 1,500 votes, over the next four years... if only it could tap into that swelling bracket of disillusioned Labour voters [something it is unlikely to ever succeed in doing: if it carries on describing them all as ‘evil, ‘corrupt’, ‘retarded’, etc.]

Two, that anywhere up to 40,000 former Labour voters are now so pissed off with their own party – their own PARTY, please note: not ‘their own Prime Minister’, who still enjoys their trust – that they would much rather not vote for anyone, at all.

Now: if I were in Robert Abela’s place, right now... that sort of revelation would worry me, a LOT. For one thing, because – unlike the case with Lawrence Gonzi – Robert Abela’s own popularity is clearly no longer enough, to ‘blind the party faithful’ to the many flaws within his own administration (in other words: the ‘RobertPL’ strategy is no longer working; and needs to be changed.)

But Abela has an even bigger problem on his hands. Let me put it this way: if such a massive chunk of his party’s support base is threatening not to vote Labour... and it’s NOT because of any loss of trust, in himself as party leader....

... then what the bleeding hell is even pissing all those Labour voters off, in the first place?

Let’s face it: in view of these findings... it cannot really be any of the ‘usual suspects’, like inflation, immigration, the environment, etc. Nor can it be any of the individual occurrences which have clearly dented Abela’s popularity, in recent months (such as the Jean Paul Sofia saga: which had coincided with our earlier survey, last July).

Because what sense could it possibly make, to hold the Labour PARTY responsible for any of those issues... and not its leader: who dictates and directs the entire policy-vision, upon which both Labour Party, and Labour government, base all their actions?

I’ve already mentioned the Jean Paul Sofia inquiry, so I may as well use that as an example. Last weekend I interviewed former AD chairman (and Nationalist candidate) Michael Briguglio about the current political situation... and this is one of the things he said:

“I don’t off-hand remember the exact sequence of events. But in the final instance, there seems to have been a crescendo: first Deborah Schembri; then Jason Micallef; then Joseph Muscat, no less... all saying that ‘there should be a public inquiry’. And this left Robert Abela with no option, but to say ‘Yes’.”

That broadly corresponds with my own memory, too. I also seem to remember how the vast bulk of public opprobrium, over that issue, had been directed overwhelmingly at Robert Abela himself. On two counts, please note: first, for displaying ‘insensitivity’ towards Sofia’s grieving mother; and secondly, for appearing ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’, by capitulating to public pressure (for the umpteenth time).

And yet, fast-forward two months... and all that Labour Party grassroots anger, previously aimed at Abela, seems to have spectacularly ‘boomeranged’, without any of us noticing.

Suddenly, it’s all the Labour Party’s fault, not Abela’s (even if, paradoxically, the rest of the party had actually forced their leader to ‘see sense’, in the end...).

The same, of course, goes for all the other issues as well. If we argue (as some people do) that ‘genuine Labourites’ are unhappy with the social/economic direction chosen by the Labour government, over the past 10-or-so years – its total capitulation to the centre-right ‘free market’ model, for instance; or the sleaze in which certain Labour ‘bazuzli’ always get their own way (often trampling over entire towns, and communities, in the process)...

... well, how can any of that be divorced from the actions, and decisions, taken by Robert Abela as Prime Minister? How, for instance, can anyone be ‘pissed off’ at the sheer amount of constuction that’s going on, right now (especially, in Gozo)... but not equally annoyed by the fact that Abela had openly courted Malta’s (and especially Gozo’s) construction-&-development magnates, before March 2022; and was even the ‘guest of honour’, at an election-eve dinner hosted by none other than Joseph Portelli?

And there are other issues, too. The garbage crisis, for instance. How can people be irked by the ever-accumulating mountains of trash, on every street-corner in their neighbourhood... and yet somehow fail to point any fingers of blame, at a Prime Minister who actually chose to ‘downscale’ Malta’s entire garbage-collection schedule (from three collections a week, to only two)... and even plans to downscale it further, next year?!

See what I mean? It doesn’t add up.  Or at least, it wouldn’t: if any of those issues really were to blame, for the Labour Party’s abrupt electoral nose-dive.

This leaves us – and especially, Robert Abela – with what is perhaps the most uncomfortable possibility, of the lot. For if the party leader himself is not the reason for all this ‘disgruntlement’, currently directed at Labour by its own supporters... then by definition, the true cause can only be something that is entirely outside Robert Abela’s own powers – not just as party-leader; but even as Prime Minister - to actually amend.

As such, he can continue to be as ‘popular’ as he likes, in survey, after survey, after survey... but what these latest polls also reveal, is that Robert Abela can’t carry on expecting the ‘GonziPN’ strategy to simply win Labour the 2027 election, on its own: like it had done for him in 2022, and for Gonzi in 2008.

Simply put: he is going to have to address the root cause of all this anger, sooner or later (and it is debatable – to say the least – whether he even can...).