A night of drama and tension after ‘toughest, closest election ever’
At around 2.45am last night, a GSD candidate edged closer and spoke softly, loud enough for me to hear but discreet enough not to be heard by those near us: “It’s slipping away I think.”
In the event, he was right. The party’s hopes had been buoyed by successive polls that showed them ahead by a narrow margin, forming government with nine MPs.
But as the count got under way, it began to turn. In the GSLP/Liberal camp, the party’s internal shadow counting had already picked up a trend early in the evening, even before the official numbers began to be released. The trend held.
GSD leader Keith Azopardi said it had been “the toughest and closest election ever” and shouldered the responsibility for the result.
He should not be too hard on himself though. The party has eight MPs in Parliament and clearly gave the Alliance a good run for its money with its message on the need for domestic and governance reforms.
Those “burning issues” will remain so and will only worsen unless addressed, Mr Azopardi said.
“The issues we’ve been talking about won’t go away magically,” he added.
Gibraltar faced a “deeply divided political panorama”.
Mr Azopardi however will come under pressure in the coming days, not least because the GSD constitution requires a leader who fights and loses an election to have his or her position reconfirmed by the membership within a year of the election.
The last time Mr Azopardi lost an election, his leadership of the GSD was not contested. This time though, it may prove different. Fellow GSD MP Damon Bossino has made no secret of his ambitions, while others such as Roy Clinton have also run for that post in the past and may be tempted again.
Time will tell and for now, Mr Azopardi said only that his position going forward is “a matter for mature reflection beyond today”, adding that whatever the outcome, the priority must be to not endanger the stability of the party as an alternative to the government.
So what went wrong for the GSD? The battle last night was not at the top of the list but at the bottom, where GSD candidates Youssef El Hana and Professor Daniella Tilbury were left out of parliament, along with Liberal candidate Vijay Daryanani and independent Mr Vasquez.
Both GSD candidates had drawn flak during the campaign, in particular Mr El Hana over what he acknowledged were “intemperate and offensive” comments about Israel he had posted online over a period of years.
Going by the result, the apology failed to convince a large cross-section of the community and dented Mr Azopardi’s position as people raised questions about his judgement. The common refrain in private among many GSD faithful last night was that different candidates, perhaps with more experience, would have delivered them to No.6 Convent Place.
It’s all hypothetical though. The slate was what it was. The result is what it is.
On the GSLP/Liberal side, despite the jubilation at the end, the final days and hours of the campaign had been tense.
GSLP leader Fabian Picardo, now Chief Minister again, made no effort to conceal the impact of the election night rollercoaster and the “intellectually and physically gruelling” campaign leading to it.
Things had been said about him and his administration that were not true, he said.
“What we have to do now is demonstrate that to people who may have been taken in by the GSD,” he added.
That will be a tough ask though because views in each camp appear entrenched and convincing people otherwise will not be easy. The Alliance may have won last night, but it should not ignore the clear message sent by the other half of the electorate. Mr Picardo indicated he would make changes and listen to what people were saying.
The Chief Minister’s priority though must be to get the UK/EU treaty over the line. Last night, he urged Spain’s caretaker prime minister Pedro Sanchez to form government and resume the talks as soon as possible.
Mr Picardo said the Alliance win, albeit with a thin margin in Gibraltar terms, would be seen as a comfortable lead anywhere else, particularly after three terms in office, the last two dealing with Brexit and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of those would have added to a natural decline in support over 12 years.
On the Alliance bench, Sir Joe Bossano had a good night. The polls had predicted he would be left out of parliament but in the event, the veteran MP of more than five decades was voted back in at the grand age of 84, albeit last on the list of Alliance MPs.
Liberal candidate Vijay Daryanani, who had also been predicted by the polls to lose his parliamentary seat, had a tougher night altogether, dipping in and out of the top 17 until the trend settled on the wrong side of the fence.
The polls were right, in other words, as they were too for Mr El Hana and Mr Vasquez.
Is this the end of the Alliance, as one wag suggested last night? I doubt it. Liberal newcomer Leslie Bruzon managed to come in ahead of Sir Joe, while Dr Joseph Garcia, the Liberal Party leader, topped the list of individual votes, ahead of the GSLP’s Mr Picardo by eight votes.
It’s a largely irrelevant lead, of course, though Mr Picardo joked he would refer to his Brexit running partner as Professor from now on. But that close relationship, rooted in years of shared political projects and cemented over seven years of tortuous Brexit negotiations, means the Alliance is going nowhere but the Cabinet room, at least for the foreseeable future.
The result of the vote last night signalled too a hunger for electoral reform, a different way of choosing our MPs that allows for a wider and more varied representation of our community.
Independent Social Democrat Robert Vasquez, who had hoped it would be “third time lucky” for him, pegged his campaign on this issue and even though he missed out of parliament, is clearly resonating with many people.
The nine-eight parliament delivered by voters on Thursday has not been seen since the 2006 Constitution.
That makes it a fragile parliament because if any MP on the government side is forced to leave the post for whatever reason during the next four years, it would trigger a by-election that in effect would be a general election, opening the possibility of a change of government.
But there is also another message from voters. In the past, the party in government secured the top 10 votes followed by the seven opposition MPs. Now it’s a mixed bag from top to bottom, indicating a lot of split voting.
“The block vote has crumbled,” one Alliance member told me.
All sides contesting the election promised to put this on the agenda of the next parliament in one way or another. Yesterday, the message from voters was ‘get on with it’.
As I sit and write this in the newsroom on Friday morning, I have one last thought about the past few weeks.
On my way home on Thursday evening to get some rest before the count, I walked past a group of Jewish children playing a few metres in front of the Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned as two Moroccan women sat and chatted on a bench nearby. A common enough scene, one might say.
But the heated exchanges during this campaign put a spotlight on interfaith relations on the Rock, not always in a good way.
The rights or wrongs of those exchanges is a discussion for another day. For now, I’ll stay with the image I saw on Main Street after a hard day’s work and with a long night ahead of me.
That’s the Gibraltar I know and love, the one we all want, and the one we must never take for granted.