THE Malta elections next month may see a Malta Labour Party without Mr. Mintoff at its head, and a Nationalist Government with an increased majority.
Mr. Dom Mintoff, since the quietening of his relations with the Church after independence in September, 1964, has been having trouble with the more extreme left-wing elements in his party.
Now, two unnamed Mintoffian members have split with the party and are to form a new "Socialist Party" to contend in the coming election. flow this new party succeeds with the electorate is seen in Malta as a crucial test of just how left the left-minded section of the people actually is.
Meantime, it is widely rumoured on the island that Mr. Mintoff wants to drop his leadership of the party—that he wants to devote himself more to business than to politics. He is already well known as an astute businessman.
At the same time there has been a marked cooling among his supporters over the last four years.
There are several reasons for this. In the 1962 elections many voters who sympathised with the broad lines of his programme were put off, either by the ferocity of MLP opposition to Church claims, or by the Church's sanction against voting MLP, or both. (This sanction has now been removed.) Again. during the time of the independence referendum in the first half of 1964, Mr. Mintoff's stand on his "six points" tended to decrease his popularity. This was his struggle for what he regarded as civil rights in Malta and a great many Maltese (including some of the liberal-minded) felt to be a denial of what they as a whole held sacred.
This included his advocacy of civil marriage and of reducing the legal rights of the clergy. The "civil rights" were opposed not only by traditionalists but also by many educated Maltese who saw such moves as perhaps good outside Malta but not inside.
And now, since independence, his more extreme leftwing supporters feel that he has backed down from that position vis-a-vis religious issues which had first given them .the Mintoff image. It is only since that time that he has taken up direct relations with Archbishop Gonzi, and also since then that the MLP anti-clerical propaganda has been minimal.
Three factors help to account for the apparent rise in popularity of the Nationalists, three economic steps forward that are seen as major successes for the present Government: the provisional basing of the United States Sixth Fleet in Malta, the agreement to develop Marsaxlokk as a free port, and the more recent agreement of London businessmen to invest £ 1 Im. in tourist development on the island.
The Nationalists have another possible advantage in the corning election. In 1962 they gained power more on religious than on political grounds: they were the only formidable answer to an anticlerical (many there would say anti-religious) Labour Party. But at that time their influence Was diminished by the existence of four tiny parties which were also regarded as pro. religious.
One party was knocked out in the election itself. Miss Mabel Strickland's People's Progressive Party, which returned only herself to Parliament, claims the intention to contend in the next election, but has held no public meetings so far.
Dr. Ganado's Democratic Nationalist Party, which was the result of a previous split in the Nationalist Party, is now understood to be standing down. Dr. Ganado himself is said to be negotiating to rejoin the Nationalists.
This laves only the Christian Workers' Party, led by Mr. A. Pellegrini, who was at one time a Mintoffian. There is lingering mistrust of Pellegrini among some churchmen, but a considerable minority of the voters seem to regard him as a man who combines fidelity to the Church with an appropriate concern for social reform.
The Christian Worker s, then, are likely to take votes equally from Labour and from the more conservative Nationalist camp. At present Mr. Pellegrini's party has four seats, out of a total 50 in the house. Speculation on the island gives him an expected increase to six seats next month.
The Maltese Parliament has now gone into recess, with the elections scheduled to take place "by the end of March".
There is no absolute guarantee that things will not, in the next few weeks, reach the explosive fever heat of 1962 because, for its size, life in Malta runs on an exceptionally complex network of undercurrents.
But there is one further sign pointing the other way. The Archbishop has recently reminded the clergy of the Maltese sanction against priests who publish newspaper articles without permission.
This penalty, introduced in Malta in 1934, had become a dead letter. Its reinforcement now is resented by some of the more liberal among the clergy, but it is seen by many others as a welcome move to prevent a repetition of the clergy's involvement in party politics which did so much to confuse matters in the 1962 election.
Two years ago, it was a reluctant electorate that voted for independence — reluctant because the terms of the referendum implied not so much a choice between independence and British rule, more between independence and a de-Catholicising of the State under MLP conditions.
Now, in spite of everything, there is every hope that independent Malta will move from strength to strength.