At the end of a muted election campaign, Jacob Borg looks back at the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on Malta’s general elections.
On the same day the Nationalist Party hoped to score its first blows on Labor via the launch of its manifesto, Vladimir Putin shocked the world by sweeping over Ukraine.
Coverage of the invasion dominated local and global headlines, relegating the opposition party’s big talk about why it should trust the government to near insignificance.
Entering the countryside facing an impassable chasm, the PN saw its already soft voice almost drowned out by the coverage of war.
Journalist and political pundit Peppi Azzopardi considers the timing of events to have helped Labour.
“The PN ran a good campaign but did not reach enough people, as much of the attention was focused on the war in Ukraine. People’s initial concern was with the humanitarian crisis, which then also shifted to the impact of war on them.
Labor takes the lead
With polls showing a sudden growing concern about the impact of the war, particularly on people’s pockets, the Labor government was quick to seize the initiative.
The famous pre-election checks, originally presented as an economic stimulus measure, were quickly repackaged by Prime Minister Robert Abela as a cushion against war-induced price rises.
Surveys indicate that these cheques, along with tax refunds, have helped to strengthen Labour’s already insurmountable lead.
In addition to this, the Prime Minister presented the government’s promise to freeze energy prices, made last year, as a further measure to protect Malta from further pressures on energy prices caused by the war. .
Abela was also able to use the invasion as an ideal platform to portray himself as a statesman.
“Immediately after this debate, I will travel to France for an informal meeting of the European Council,” he told university students during a mid-campaign debate with opposition leader Bernard Grech and d other political leaders.
His balancing act between the campaign and the leadership of the country, however, produced some failures.
Abela ended up arriving late for the informal Versailles summit, due to his participation in the debate.
The Prime Minister made an equally late appearance for Thursday’s European Council meeting on Ukraine, preferring not to miss addressing the last mass Labor rally before the country goes to the polls.
The war proved to be a new opportunity for the ruling party to cast doubt on the PN’s ability to lead in times of crisis.
Playing on his own credibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, Abela questioned at a rally if the PN could be trusted during a crisis.
“We are emerging from the pandemic into a world facing a new wave of uncertainty and instability, and the need for stable government has never been greater.
“Can you imagine them leading the country through the pandemic and in this time of global tension with a war in Europe?” Abela told his followers.
As Peppi Azzopardi says, in times of instability people naturally turn to what they know.
Azzopardi says the government’s effective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has instilled confidence in its ability to lead during a crisis.
The PN leader has made some attempts to hold the government accountable over Ukraine, but they have largely failed.
Grech, however, managed to score a political victory by demanding that the government immediately end passport sales to wealthy Russians.
The prime minister initially balked at the demands, insisting the government’s due diligence processes are first class.
Just seven days later, Abela left the post as the government announced the suspension of passport sales to Russians and Belarusians.
The Prime Minister and Malta have received another indictment internationally, with the European Parliament calling on the European Commission to ban citizenship-by-investment schemes.
The four MEPs from the Maltese Labor Party, Alex Agius Saliba, Josiane Cutajar, Cyrus Engerer and Alfred Sant, voted against, making them the only members of the S&D parliamentary group to do so.
Readers turned to the war in Ukraine
Editor of the Times of Malta Herman Grech shares his point of view.
There were two main reasons why there was little general enthusiasm for the election campaign. For the first time in memory, the winner was clear before the campaign whistle sounded as one survey after another showed a landslide from the Labor Party. The main talking point in this election became the split between the two main parties, resulting in one of the weakest election campaigns in living memory.
Just days after the campaign was launched, the first Russian bombs were dropped on Ukraine.
While too many of us have turned a blind eye to the wars in Syria, Yemen, and different parts of Africa (due to geographic distances and biases), this time we saw a war unleashed on the doorstep of EU. The tragic images of bombs raining down on cities, spitting out corpses and millions of refugees have forced many of us to rethink our own priorities.
First, it was outrage at seeing human conflict and fear of war spreading across Europe, and then we began to accept the economic cost of this conflict. Shortages of certain goods are looming, inflation is almost a guarantee, and we still don’t know the full cost of this war.
Issues significant a month ago appear less significant, with existential anxiety replacing concern over issues such as COVID-19 and transportation. This is attested by Malta weatheronline statistics.
On most days last month, there were far more readers engaged with stories related to the war in Ukraine compared to Malta’s election campaign. Our reporters have focused on war-related stories and the reason is obvious – it’s one of the greatest international stories of our generation.
Yet despite the war, I saw few adjustments to the script from political leaders, and their narrative remained focused on promising gifts and tax cuts. The war in Ukraine claimed only one victim during Malta’s electoral campaign: the future Russian buyer of Maltese passports. Otherwise, for both major parties, the Ukraine war was the elephant in the room.
It is still necessary to wait to know to what extent the war has punctured the electoral promises.
One thing is certain, it is Robert Abela who has benefited the most from the war in Ukraine from an electoral point of view. And that’s no surprise. Traditionally, in times of war, voters have stuck with the incumbent because, in their minds, that same leader is seen as the guarantor of stability.
Discover the latest polls in France. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Emanuel Macron’s electoral fortunes have increased and his victory is almost certain in the presidential elections next month.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.