The first leaders’ debate on TVM didn’t matter. We knew that. So did Joseph Muscat and Saviour Balzan, the moderator. Perhaps even Adrian Delia knew. So why discuss it? Because it helps highlight what the real choices are for that segment of the electorate that wishes a plague on both leaders’ houses.
We know Muscat believed the debate didn’t really matter because he operated on half-throttle. He was content to sit back and let Balzan tangle with Delia. He didn’t even mention his Party’s slogan – Malta f’Qalbna (Malta in our hearts) – until the very end, almost perfunctorily.
Balzan showed he knew viewers were likely to tune out quickly. He asked the two most important questions immediately. Both were directed at Delia and both, coincidentally, dovetail with how Labour is framing the electoral choice.
Did Delia see these elections as a test of his leadership? And why did the Nationalist Party offer only a minimal number of candidates in some localities? Just in case some viewers only tuned in at the end, Delia was asked if he’d resign if the elections went badly.
It seems Delia believed that some of the people watching were Nationalist voters still haunted by Labour’s golden years in the 1980s. He kept referring to Labour as the Socialist Party, presumably in the hope that this would mobilise ‘AB’ Nationalists who are currently reluctant to vote PN. But it’s doubtful how many such people care to watch Balzan. It’s more likely that Delia helped Muscat with those Labour voters who have gnawing doubts about whether their Party is still anywhere to the left of centre.
Four things played in Muscat’s favour. First, he only needed a draw, given how far ahead Labour is in the polls.
Second, the debate was a calm conversation between three people sitting within arm’s length of each other. It was what Muscat said he wanted, right at the beginning, hoping for ‘political maturity’. But that also gave him the kind of contest that suited him.
Rhetorically, Delia is a one-trick pony. He can mobilise a segment of his electorate by channelling anger at the injustices of everyday life. But seated at a table, less briefed than his opponent, his arguments come across as lawyers’ word salad. A calm discussion prevented Delia from getting into his stride and energising any listener still thinking about whether to vote PN.
Third, Balzan asked the very questions Muscat would have wanted asked. It’s a trick question to ask Delia (any leader for that matter) if he’d resign if the vote went against him. No leader can responsibly answer yes, without betraying his own Party’s candidates, because he would end up encouraging those voters who want to get rid of him to vote against the PN. (It’s for a similar reason that David Cameron denied he’d resign if he lost the Brexit vote, even though he then resigned immediately when the result was declared).
So understandably Delia said no, he would not resign, and thus enraged many middle-class voters who are currently balancing their wish to vote for Nationalist MEP candidates with their wish not to endorse Delia.
Fourth, Muscat managed to land a few punches while keeping the debate tepid. It’s clear his aim was to keep things subdued and not energise the voters who’ll never consider him. He has enough resources to energise Labour voters in other ways.
Framing the vote as a choice between himself and Delia is a stratagem aimed primarily at undecided Opposition voters. It gets them to think that a PN vote will be an endorsement of Delia (and if they’re undecided, it’s clear they have a problem with the PN leader).
It encourages the smaller political parties and independent candidates to cry out they are running too – with the unintended effect of doing Muscat’s work of seeking to repress the PN vote so as to knock out at least one Nationalist MEP.
Framing things this way obscures the full set of issues before voters concerned about rule of law and political integrity.
Anyone concerned with having a credible and effective Opposition will have important doubts about Delia. But credibility and effectiveness will also be in play in the very working of the European Parliament. If Labour sweeps the MEP elections, the chances of a credible, effective representation of Malta’s rule-of-law interests are significantly reduced. One or two Opposition MEPs are significantly less effective than three.
Not voting PN would certainly send a strong message to the Nationalist Party about its current weak leadership. But if a vote helps bring about a massive Labour victory, it would also send a significant discouraging message to the European Parliament and institutions.
These are not easy issues to resolve. They require a clear sense of priorities, rational focus, and a willingness to make unpalatable tradeoffs. Any resolution will be open to debate.
But the reason they are difficult issues is because they embrace the full set of real choices. When Muscat says the stark choice is between him and Delia, he is simplifying. And he isn’t trying to be helpful.