Monday, 28 January 2013

One third

This article was published in  The Malta Independent on Sunday -27th January 2013

One-third of the way down this long election campaign permits some sort of interim analysis.

Labour entered the campaign with a good margin advantage over the PN and whilst about one fifth of the electorate remains undecided or uncommitted, Labour knows that if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot the election is theirs to lose.     It looks a fair bet at this interim stage that Labour has kept their lead even as the pool of undecided voters starts to shrink.   

In no way does this mean that the contest may be considered over.    If a week is a long time in politics, the remaining six weeks of this campaign may look like an eternity.

The performance during the first three weeks of the campaign has shown Labour better prepared at the starting line.     The PN admitting that they were in no hurry to kick-start their campaign is hard to understand when they had the advantage of blowing of the whistle and of choosing the duration of the campaign.  

Experienced hands in marketing would have no difficulty in concluding that Labour’s campaign so far has been better presented, more integrated and easier to warm yourself up to.    Labour choose one broad topic every week and support their message through press conferences, TV ads and billboard visuals in a coordinated way to reinforce their message.   We have gracefully moved from cheaper utility bills to free child care and on to tablets for our 9 year olds.

From the PN side one gets the firm impression that the change of PL Deputy Leader over the Christmas election hiatus has forced the PN to re-think their campaign and go back to the drawing board.    Their billboards are failing to reinforce the message and words like Xoghol, Sahha u Edukazzjoni have become too hackneyed to inspire the message.  

During the first three weeks we have seen the PN being forced to mellow their negative campaigning against Labour.    In his first campaign speech the Prime Minister said the country would be mad to trust itself under PL leadership even for five minutes.    That came through as vintage arrogance typical of a monopolist supplier who believes that his clients do not really have a choice.

On the contrary democracy is about choices and anybody who takes the electorate for granted generally set themselves up for unpleasant surprises.   Presumably their granular research started indicating as much to the PN strategists forcing them to soften their rubbishing of Labour and start discussing issues.   But in so doing they were always playing catch up to Labour.

If Labour promises more purchasing power to households through lower utility bills, after some initial attempts to rubbish the idea the PN issue their own version of how to deliver such reductions through lower night tariffs.     If the PL offers free child care to facilitate increased female participation in the labour market, the PN soon come out with their version for free child-care with a voucher system.   Soon after the PL announce their project for gradual roll-out of computer tablets as children pass through year 4 of primary schools, the PN announces their version with a faster roll-out from class 3 in the primary till class 5 in the secondary.

Anything you can do I can do better seems to be the PN’s unwritten motto.    The surprising lack of an integrated marketing campaign seems to be the result of a lot of improvisation which has ultimately culminated itself in the release of the full electoral manifesto with 125 pledges when there are still 6 weeks to go in this campaign.

So the PN have switched from no urgency to kick-start the campaign to a sudden full blown release of their portfolio of pledges all in one go.    Compare this to Labour drop by drop roll out as they pass from one week’s topic to another  where specific measures are announced and reinforced through an  integrated marketing message keeping their campaign fresh and with always something new to look forward to.

And how can one avoid the impression of sudden improvisation of the inputs in their manifesto if it contains such pledges as excluding minimum wage earners from the tax net when only last November’s 2013 Budget extended taxation on to certain minimum wage earners?   How can one avoid concluding that the manifesto is an improvisation job if after going through their ordeal with Franco Debono’s rebellion in parliament the manifesto says nothing of the PN pledge to introduce legislation to control the financing of political parties.  
So whilst the Prime Minister regularly speculates something sinister about the cost of Labour’s campaign, regulation of political party financing drops out completely from the PN manifesto.

Why was the introduction of a whistle-blowers act omitted from the PN manifesto when we are living through a strong case of corruption which has only come to light because the internal factions are fighting each other as probably they cannot agree on how to share the spoils?   With a functional whistle-blowers act there is a better chance for such corruption to surface.

In the end however I doubt very much whether that floating section of the electorate that decides which way elections go would cast their vote based on what is in or out of the manifesto.    Credibility is the currency of politics and credibility is accumulated gradually through the performance over several years not through easy write-ups and talk-is-cheap pledges in a campaign manifesto.

If the PN have not found it a priority to formulate an efficient energy policy for Malta and instead showed greater priority for a parliament building totally detached from the real needs of society at large, it cannot suddenly gain credibility simply by rubbishing the PL’s energy policy alternatives.   The disadvantage of the PN is that human nature takes successes for granted, as in health services and job creation, whilst failure makes better headlines.

In the remaining six weeks of the campaign three things will help those that are still undecided to sway one way or the other.   Stories about rampant corruption especially if credible with documentary proof will enforce the democratic wish for alternation of power to cleanse the incumbents from accumulated arrogance and excessive comfort of tenure.

Incumbency fatigue will also influence some of the undecided whether to hold on to the known quantity or whether to try the new.
And finally whether the liability of incumbency (the fatigue, the corruption and the baggage accumulated through long tenure of power) will be greater than the power of incumbency where all caution is thrown to the wind and clientelism becomes the hallmark of the executive in a desperate attempt to cling on to their throne.

This time there is no higher order issue to dominate and sway votes one way or the other.   There is no early election as in 1998 when Labour had to face the electorate after it had just administered the medicine as every government tends to do in the first part of the legislature.   There is no EU issue as in 2003.   There is no Alfred Sant issue as in 2008 when people were forced to avoid Labour’s offer of new policies in old wrappers.

This time it is a flat race without hurdles in Labour’s way.  If they are in front at this stage they need to do no more than draw on the remaining issues and keep their ship sailing steadily at cruising speed.

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