Let’s compare like with like. We need to compare the frame of mind of Maltese voters with when they last voted in a European Parliament election, because what they’re thinking when they’re voting in a general election is simply different. So, here’s the shift between 2019 and 2024.

The ruling Labour Party in this election clocked 117,805 first preference votes, which is down 16.6% when compared with the 2019 ballot when they secured 141,267 first preference votes.

The opposition Nationalist Party in this election garnered 109,351 first preference votes, which is up 10.9% when compared with 2019 when they secured 98,611 votes.

The base lines for the two elections are comparable. The number of registered voters in this nationwide election (370,184) was slightly smaller than in 2019 (371,643), there were about as many invalid votes (3.7% in 2024 compared with 3.6% in 2019), and the turnout was about the same as well (73% in 2024 compared with 72.7% in 2019).

This means that comparing absolute numbers is useful. Whether it is because people who abstained in the last election voted PN this time while people who voted Labour in the last election abstained this time, or because people who voted Labour last time voted PN this time, or a mixture of the two, there has been a net 6% swing from Labour to the PN.

The PN did not secure the remaining 10% that Labour lost but a chunk of it would have gone its way were it not for Arnold Cassola. He secured 12,706 first preference votes as an independent candidate, an incredible achievement by any measure. He alone, without a party to back him up, secured 4.9% of the national vote.

You can get an indication of the background of the people who voted for him by looking at where his votes went when he was eliminated late in the count. By then around 60% of his votes were non-transferable because the candidates he could have propped up were already eliminated. Of what was left some 4 out of every 5 transferable votes he could leave as his legacy went to PN candidates. If one dares to extrapolate from that observation, without Arnold Cassola the gap between PN and PL (of 8,454) could have been altogether neutralised. The PN could have won this.

It would have made no practical difference to the final result of 3 MEPs for each one of the two main parties.

But the psychological boost to the PN’s morale yesterday would have been even greater. At any rate they now feel they’re contenders while Labour for the first time since 2008 no longer feel they’re alone on top.

There’s more comforting news in this analysis. While Labour bled 23,462 first preference votes the loony right wing made no gains. It’s no reason to lower our guard but the hatemongering anti-vaxxers have gained no votes, even from a government with a loyalty crisis. Imperium Europa actually lost 17.2% of its vote and is now down to 6,816. And egg-tossing clowns like Ivan Grech Mintoff and bespectacled intellectuals like Simon Mercieca proved to be barely a blip in the statistics.

I’m not one to gloat at the poverty of other people’s election results given that my only attempt at electoral politics proved comically inept. But it took me years to see the funny side and so must they. Still, I make an exception at anti-system hate mongers who ask for our vote in order to dismantle our democracy, so here’s me holding my belly and laughing at Simon Mercieca.

More seriously this was a European election and looking at our little corner of Europe without regard to the rest of it is obtuse and counter-logical. On a European scale, though the far right has not quite made the sort of gains that would allow them to dictate the agenda of the European Parliament, there are some very scary trends. Italy’s far right is consolidated. Germany’s far right (doesn’t that short series of words chill you to the bone?) is rising. In Austria (again?) it is the most prominent and dominant political force.

In France too, the historical heartland of the far right, it is now the largest political force. Emmanuel Macron has just stunningly gambled the country’s government, a disproportionate reaction to the EP results which could see the far-right sweep to government for the first time since Vichy. A presidential election is around the corner and Macron won’t be around for that either.

The trend is not universal. Viktor Orban must be concerned with an emerging opposition to his left. In Spain and Denmark, the centre left is still in business. And here in Malta the Labour Party, whose MEPs sit in the EP with the Socialists by accident but vote with the fascists when democracy in Malta is being examined, has been taught the lesson that there’s no such thing as ‘invincible’.

But back to the European Parliament: it’s good to know that the EPP of the outstanding Roberta Metsola, her veteran colleague David Casa, and her new one Peter Agius, will not need the support of the far right to put an agenda together. The EPP confirmed yesterday they’ll continue to rely on the Socialists and the much-diminished Liberals (that’s Macron’s collapse) to keep Europe’s agenda within the space of reason.

But will they really? That will be the question of the next 5 years. The EPP is stronger than ever but to what extent will concern for the preservation of its incumbency cloud its judgement if it continues to see growing support for the far right? How will it engage with more far right governments (as in France and Italy) or governments functioning in the shadow of the far right (as in the Netherlands and Germany)?

It may not have been foremost on their mind but the quite incredible 87,473 Maltese voters who gave Roberta Metsola their first preference, appointed a woman with a mission far greater than giving Robert Abela a bloody nose, which she did. They dispatched her to the European Parliament to be an actor in the drama of our time. She had the good sense of resisting the temptation of telling them that.

This new Parliament will be a turning point for the history that is yet to be made. These European Parliamentarians will either steer us out of these choppy waters or haul us into the failure of democracy and the beginning of another of the many dark chapters of the history of this bloody self-destructing continent. Our very own Roberta Metsola will be an important actor in that drama.

Meanwhile, Alex Agius Saliba and his colleagues will be focused on the local scene and what it means for them. Did Labour also lose votes because it was missing its former leaders on the ballot sheet? Are Labour voters unhappy because they have grown addicted to greed and expect more of the gifts that Labour showered on them in the past? Is it conceivable that voters are prepared to change their behaviour simply because major Labour Party policies are now the subject of criminal prosecution?

That is what Robert Abela will be trying to understand now. He will intuitively reject the notion that the poor result is the product of his ineptitude. He subsists on self-confidence, however objectively unjustified it might be. And the rumblings of discontent with his leadership are likely to fire up his innate paranoia and legendary touchiness.

Remember that press conference he gave launching this campaign but really blustering threats against the inquiring magistrate who prepared the evidence in the Vitals/Steward case against Joseph Muscat? That was a spectacle of a prime minister under pressure he could not handle. It’s going to get worse.

Muscat loyalists will be wanting to avoid getting the blame for the electoral result because the only reason most Labour supporters worship Muscat is because he’s always won them elections. If it starts looking like he’s losing them some as well, they won’t support him when he needs them to threaten police officers and prosecutors and judges and maybe one day prison warders. Muscat loyalists will be wanting Labour supporters to attribute this near-loss to Abela.

Abela will not know how to react to that. He would not be able to blame the losses on Muscat and his gang because he fears the loss of votes for the Labour Party more than he might fear anything else. What he’ll be left with is the dissatisfaction of his voter base and with access to the country’s resources he’s going to do everything in his power to reverse that.

Expect then more inexplicable waste of public funds in handouts, literally more money for nothing, to coin a phrase. Expect more so-called ‘development’ permits with wild abandon. Expect more public sector recruitment for unnecessary jobs requiring no skill. Expect more populist anti-migrant rhetoric and action. Expect more pressure on institutions to leave Labour sacred cows to enjoy impunity.

Expect more of the reasons why Labour lost so many votes to intensify over the next years to a general election. So, what’s new? The fact that with all its ineptitudes it can no longer be said that the PN is not an alternative government in waiting.