Negative electoral campaigning

No election date has yet been announced. Notwithstanding, the battle drums from both political parties have been brought out and their beating frenzy have noticeably increased in careful, calculated doses in these last weeks. Malta is in pre-campaign limbo, being the period just before elections are announced when everyone except the daft barber knows that the election is just round the corner.

And this phenomenon, visible every four to five years, brings out the irrational and the heightened Mediterranean need of uncalled for, illogical confrontation between voters. Where ideas and ideals do not count, but character assassination becomes the order of the day. When families all across Malta and Gozo opt to not meet up and discuss current affairs lest family members end up insulting one another due to their different political allegiance. Derogative pet names for the two party leaders have already been forcibly entrenched into the local psyche: The Hon. Robert Abela has been diluted to Bobbie whilst the Hon. Bernard Grech has been cynically labelled Bernie or Bendu.

And when we thought that partisan politics – as projected by the usual suspect politicians – cannot stoop any lower, the pre-campaign limbo inevitably brings on a heightened focus on negative electoral campaigning.

This phenomenon is as old as classical history and certainly not unique to our island, although our resourcefulness in this field demands a complete sociological study. The origins of negative campaigning can be first noted with the emergence of political competition and electoral campaigns. Sources go back to 64 BC, when Quintus Tullius Cicero, one of the first spin-doctors in the world, drafted a letter of advice to his brother, Marcus Tullius Cicero, then running for the consulate. He insisted on including ‘negative campaigning’ in the campaign, to remind the people:

‘(…) of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.’

PM Robert Abela has been diluted to Bobbie whilst Opposition Leader Bernard Grech has been cynically labelled Bernie or Bendu.

Cicero’s power-plays in the explosive period during the last breaths of the Roman Republic and the birth pangs of the Roman Empire are legendary. Changing his allegiances when expedient throughout his career, Cicero’s scheming and plotting against Julius Caesar and Marc Antony eventually cost him his head. When Octavian and Antony founded a Triumvirate with Lepidus, they swore to destroy their opponents and take revenge on the men who had been associated with the murder of Julius Caesar. They therefore issued proscriptions against their enemies. Anyone on these lists would be ruled an outlaw and stripped of their possessions and their citizenship.

Mark Antony had insisted that Cicero be put on the proscriptions list. According to Plutarch, Octavian had argued for two days with both Mark Antony and Lepidus that Cicero be left alone, but to no avail; he yielded on the third day, thereby sealing Cicero’s fate. His time ran out on 7 December 43 BC in his sixty fourth year when the centurion Herennius cut off his head, by Antony’s command, and his hands — the hands with which he wrote the Philippics. After his death, Cicero’s head and hands were sent back to Rome, where Mark Antony ordered them fastened to the Rostra, a large platform from where orators spoke.

He was one of history’s greatest orators and infamous for his mastery of negative electoral campaigning. The Maltese language still today honours this legendary orator, lawyer and politician: We still refer to someone who talks and talks ad nauseam as a ‘ċaċċarun’, being a bastardised rendition of his name.

Past experiences from around the world

Today, parties and candidates around the world ‘go negative,’ and they may choose among a palette of tools. In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign team used footage of Hillary Clinton’s collapse at a campaign event for an ad suggesting a lack of ‘stamina’ to face the challenges of presidency. In the 2010 British election, the Tories produced a series of posters attacking Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was held responsible for, ‘taking billons from pensions,’ having ‘doubled the national debt’ or having ‘let 80,000 criminals out early.’

During the French 2017 presidential election, rumours, suggesting that the later-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, ‘was part of a secret cabal,’ ‘worked for the Rothschilds’ or ‘was gay,’ were spread. With Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, these elections also witnessed successful negative campaigns denouncing the ‘established’ political class and fuelling public Euroscepticism or nativism. Together with other populist extremist candidates, they obtained almost half of all votes in the first round. Their success mirrors that of similar parties across Europe and abroad and is typically associated with negative political communication.

As an electoral strategy, negative campaigning aims at persuading risk-averse voters ‘not to vote’ for a party or candidate and to mobilise own supporters. Hence either by capturing or appealing to voters or by deterring them from casting a vote, negative campaigning help attacking parties to maximise votes—either in absolute or relative terms.

Rational parties will ‘go negative’ if the presumed benefits outweigh its potential costs. They will attack if they expect the damage done to the target to be greater than the risk of alienating (potential) voters. The risk stems from potential backlash or boomerang effects. If potential voters or partisans dislike negative campaigning, they might withdraw their support if messages exceed their individual levels of acceptance for this campaign strategy.

A more general explanation for the use of negative campaigning comes from cognitive psychology and the ‘negativity bias.’ Accordingly, individuals pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information, compared to a positive. Hence, negative campaigning is a promising strategy to raise awareness and gain publicity. Communication research attests that the presence of negativity or conflict increases the ‘newsworthiness’ of stories and events with journalists reporting more on negative news.

As is thus very clear, this method of negative, mud-slinging politics has a calculated logic and scientific reasoning behind it. It has more to do with the acquisition of power at all costs instead of the concept of electoral debate and convincing the electorate. It takes respect and the humane out of the political picture and transposes them with political expediency and scare-mongering.

Statistics show that, overall and in the long run, these tactics prove to be counter-productive. They inevitably bring out the worst in any political party, leaving the latter ripe for political implosion and much soul-searching after the elections. It is indeed a pity that there is one political party in Malta which, notwithstanding an obvious pattern of voter disdain for such antics, persists in dragging local political campaigning through the dredges of negativity, time and time again.

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