Sunday, 10 March 2013

The government we deserve (2)

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 10th March 2013
Writing an opinion column when the election is still in progress, knowing it will be read when the election result is out, is tricky.   I could play it safe and write something sterile and non-committal.   Who would want to read that?
searched what I had written before in similar situations.   Writing in this column on 9th March 2013 ( almost 10 years ago to the day) I commented as follows on the EU referendum result before it was known:

My major pre-occupation …….. is more on the possibility that both camps will declare themselves as the winners and we could have two large crowd masses celebrating within walking distance of each other, what ought to be a mutually exclusive victory.

That was spot-on.    On 9th March 2008 (almost five years ago to the day) I commented as follows in this same column:

My best judgement remains that the balance remains inclined towards voting out the PN, which is not quite the same as voting Labour in though this finesse may be lost on many.

Not quite spot-on but given the narrow difference involved in the final result it was well within the statistical margin of error.

Where do we stand this time after a never ending campaign which if one goes by the official and unofficial polls, has changed pretty little and has left the odds well in favour of Labour, in a dimension outside the margin of error? 
Let me make it clear that I am not privy to any information which is not in public domain and that these comments are purely personal conclusions based on experienced observations of things as they evolve over time.

Polls by their own nature are indicative and when a third of the population refuses to participate,  polls should be taken with an even bigger dose of caution.    But if their consistency is taken in conjunction with other circumstantial evidence then I just cannot imagine that the polls will be proved materially wrong by the final result.

What circumstantial evidence?    Firstly  that in 1996 with Fenech Adami just finishing two consecutive terms and Alfred Sant presenting himself for the first elections as Leader of the Labour Party, the electorate gave Labour a sizeable victory.  Compare that to the present situation where the fatigue of the outgoing Gonzi government after three consecutive terms is much bigger than it was in 1996 and after a third legislature mired by internal feuding, corruption allegations and vintage arrogance. 
As a matter of course the Maltese electorate tends to vote for alternation every decade, a typical course of the democratic cycle.   The Mintoff rebellion forced denial of that trend in 1998.    Labour forced the electorate to keep it out of power in 2003 over the EU issue and Sant did it again in 2008 by clinging on to leadership against conventional wisdom that new policies require new leadership. 

This time the reversion to mean principle should apply.   There were no higher order issues in this election which could have forced the electorate’s hand from operating in the normal course of things.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence to be taken into the consideration is that the election campaign has been won hands down by Labour.  Labour’s campaign was a model lesson in integrated marketing delivering a consistent positive message with the various channels reinforcing each other.   On the other hand it is evident that the PN campaign was upset by the change in the PL Deputy Leadership  whereby Louis Grech became the right hand man for Joseph Muscat.   Whilst Labour hit the ground running on 7th January,  the PN were totally lost in the first three weeks of the campaign by the double blow of Louis Grech’s appointment and the detailed and creditable energy plan that Labour launched in the third day of the campaign.    The PN were forced to put the last billboard as their first one, use sterile clichés for their campaign, launch their electoral programme in one single shot which omitted to include any proposals for improved measures of governance, and issue costings of their programme which are completely detached from reality.

One tends to get the impression that PN changed their direction of the campaign at least twice in its course.    Like a football team that changes its coach too often in the course of the season, the end result is often not what is wished for.  So we have seen the PN’s campaign  switching violently from neutral to strongly negative and back to positive.  We have had logos disappear mid-stream,  billboards on specific measures issued out of sync with their announcement,  and we have seen at least four different interpretations given to a crucial pledge for recovery of costs incurred for free medicine that goes out of stock.

In the direct debates between the Leaders and the Deputy Leaders the PN failed to score any knock out blows. If anything in the one best organised by The Times,  Dr Gonzi scored quite a few own goals.   Admitting not being familiar with Labour’s manifesto is political suicide.  Refusing outright to consider resignation in case of electoral defeat projected lack of emotional intelligence in knowing when it’s time to go.  It reinforced the perception of arrogance and clinging to power whatever it takes; a perception that had been building up throughout 2012 as the Gonzi’s government limped on without parliamentary majority even though the national interest would have been served better by early elections.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence which corroborates the swing away from the PN,  is Labour’s parading various well known former PN supporters and executives who not only fell out with their traditional party but extrovertly switched to Labour and felt proud to shout about it in TV debates, public conferences and billboard messages.    The PN could not find a single inverse replica and had to rely on a disgruntled Club barman who switched allegiance after he was shot out by Labour on suspicions of substance abuse inside the Club.

The last piece fell into place in the final mass meeting.    Having President Fenech Adami address the  Granaries mass meeting points to desperate measures in the face of desperate circumstances.   Dr Gonzi had committed a grave mistake earlier in the campaign when he chose to reserve judgement on the performance of current President George Abela because his son criticised the PN government at a Labour meeting.   Dr Abela enjoys high public esteem and support rating, making him the most effective republican president.  Reserving judgement on his performance is an insult to the general acclamation of the Maltese nation.   Inviting President Fenech Adami to address a political party meeting breaking the tradition that presidents continue to respect the position of their title ( and benefits) by avoiding direct involvement in party politics, shows further disdain to the wishes of the majority.

Taking the consistency of the polls and the various pieces of circumstantial evidence gives me confidence enough to predict that Joseph Muscat will be Malta’s next prime minister and with a margin that gives him a comfortable working majority.  If Labour can’t win this time, then when?
Can I be awfully wrong?   Of course I can.  Things happen.   In that case my next article would be an apology and an explanation in the strong tradition of famous economists who excel in explaining tomorrow why their predictions of yesterday did not materialise.

At this stage what is important that everyone respects the sovereignty of the electorate.   Every country gets the government it deserves and the people are always right.   Whether by a single vote or by several thousands the will of the majority has to prevail in full respect of democratic principles and the rights of minorities.   In democracy there are no losers, there is only alternation where the losers of today are the winners of tomorrow.   Every defeat contains the seed for the next success just as every success has the recipe for its eventual defeat.

My final appeal is to political leaders to lead by example.   If the result is close let’s call it a photo finish and keep celebrations corked until the result is clear and final.   But if the result is not close it is absolutely important for the loser to make early concession as much as it is important for the winner to demand its supporters to celebrate without offending, and that after Monday’s post-election qausi-holiday, life returns to normal on Tuesday.

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