Friday, 12 June 2009

The Kahuna and the Brain

12th June 2009
The Malta Independent - Friday Wisdom

The result of the MEP elections is known. The result of local elections, which votes will be counted over next weekend, is not expected to change materially the verdict’s orientation, although some shades reflecting realities at the local level should be expected.

Analysing the result can be both simple and complicated, depending on whether one stays at the superficial layer or drills down to the core. I propose to do both.

At the superficial level Labour had an impressive outright majority win with a margin which augurs well for future electoral challenges under Muscat’s leadership. Wide as this margin may be, however, it does not in any way mean that Labour will have an easy ride to victory at the next general elections whenever they come by 2013. Those that voted PN at last year’s general election but this time decided to show disapproval by staying at home, could well exhaust their urge for disapproval through local and MEP elections but feel obliged to tow the party line when national executive power gets decided at general elections.

What is clear however is that Labour has recovered the fringes it had lost under Sant’s leadership. The extreme left that abandoned Sant following the Mintoff saga and the EU membership u-turn, as well as the moderate centre that had left due to Sant’s anti-EU policies, quickly reverted to their natural Labour home under Muscat’s leadership. Anyone who still doubts that Sant was the PN’s best asset should now doubt no more.

Under Muscat, Labour’s campaign machine is much more sleek and efficient. The message was focused and with a multi-channel campaign which was focused and reinforcing the main message that the Gonzi administration has failed to deliver what it promised. The PN campaign by contrast, having lost the easy target of capitalising on Sant’s unpopularity, was all over the place delivering a multitude of messages which contradicted the hardship voters were experiencing in their everyday life. The PN naively failed to explain that there are international developments that no government or prospective government has any control upon.

Muscat was gracious in tempering euphoria within Labour’s ranks. While scoring a victory beyond his best expectations, Muscat knows that peaking too early will make it harder to keep growing consistently till the big prize is secured. He showed wisdom in playing down expectations, which in Labour’s camp quickly take root as they are sought just like water in a scorched desert.

In the PN camp there was clear shock not so much for the defeat as for its dimension. While extrapolation of this result to a general elections environment is irrelevant if not impossible, a gap of 35,000 votes equivalent to 15 per cent is unprecedented and forms a gap which can only be bridged with hard work and a lot of luck from a turnaround in the harsh international economic environment by the time the general elections are due.

Beyond this superficial analysis what other messages emerge from the MEP election result? For the PN this result could be a very important wake-up call delivering four important messages.

The first message is that Labour under Muscat is a much more formidable opponent and a much stronger force to be reckoned with.

The second message is that their internal administration which practically worked a near miracle in the 2008 election campaign, is malfunctioning under the inexperienced hands of the new General Secretary Paul Borg Olivier.

The third important message is that Simon Busuttil is shaping up in public opinion as the evident choice for the next leader to take over from Lawrence Gonzi, before or soon after the next general elections.

The last message is that the PN should stop taking the electorate for granted. The way they handled the utilities bills saga has all the hallmarks of a perfect recipe for mismanagement. People cannot be expected to switch effortlessly from a rose tinted view of the world before general elections to a very threatening environment as soon as the mandate is secured. The electorate intelligence must be respected as manipulation is no substitute.

The big question going forward is whether the PN will understand these messages and build their future strategy around them. Their immediate reaction to the election result offers scant confidence that they truly understand these messages. My impression from the PN’s reaction is that they think it is okay to suffer such defeats so far away from the next general elections as there remains ample time to engineer a turnaround and manipulate public opinion in the last 12 months or so of the legislature.

Labour could take heart not just from their win, but more so from the PN’s misplaced reaction to the result. The PN cannot rely solely on the kahuna.
They need to bring back the brain.

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