The race for Number Six is on

Jonathan Sacramento - Monday 30th September

The opening salvos were fired on the 16th, with the fireworks and fervour of National Day a hazy memory, and just hours after Bayside and Westside pupils had poured into their new school buildings.

Apart from a few broadsides here and there, the tensions and intrigue as the parties finalised their slates, and the largely invisible but furious midnight manifesto writing sessions, it’s been relatively quiet.

The campaign in earnest begins today, as party supporters, NGOs and members of the public line the seats of the John Mackintosh Hall for the first dose of three gruelling weeks of live debate on Radio Gibraltar and GBC Television.

The 2015 election was fought between two parties.

The dynamics have changed with the introduction of Together Gibraltar, a new outfit proudly donning the mantra of grass roots activism, engagement and vowing to bring a new style of politics to Parliament, where they believe the community’s diversity is unrepresented.

The GSD has been celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. They will use their historical record in both Government and Opposition in an attempt to convince voters that they have the experience necessary to provide an alternative to the current administration.

The GSLP Liberals will tell you Brexit hangs over everything, and now is not the time to be changing Government, asking voters to stick with a proven and experienced team. Their message is crystallised by the team they’ve fronted. Largely unchanged. Consistent.

Manifestos are likely to be rolled out this week. As the incumbent administration, the GSLP Liberals have had the advantage, as they held the electoral trigger button. But an October election should not have come as a surprise to any of the protagonists. Manifestos must have been in the works for a while, and the printers are surely on standby for the final green light.

This election also marks a key turning point for local politics – we are likely to see the most intense social media battle to date. Party rank and file members will mostly field their two cents on political groups and pages, where the noise is so constant that a single message can be lost in the blink of an eye. But the candidates and campaign managers are more likely to focus their content on their own handles, where they can be more in control of their messages.

There is, however, plenty of life left in old school methods. Towards the tail end of the campaign, street visibility will be more pronounced, as footsoldiers follow their generals into housing estates and neighbourhoods in the battle for hearts and minds.

The climax of the campaign will be the leaders’ debate on GBC Television. By this point, many will have nailed their colours to party masts. For them, the experience will be one reminiscent to watching a cup final, cheering on their preferred leader with the passion of a club supporter.

But if they’re wise, these aren’t the voters the leaders will be pitching to, however tempting it may seem. Their goal here is to reach the undecideds. The open-minded, last-minute brigade, for whom the criteria range from the message, to the style of delivery.

The morning of the 17th will bring a strange mixture of calm and nervous tension. Party activists donning rosettes and handing out flyers will stand side-by-side at polling stations, exchanging pleasantries about how unusually hot or cold it is for October.

Purdah kicks in. The national broadcaster is forbidden from airing any campaign material, and is limited to the mechanisms of the electoral system and ‘how important it is to vote’. For a day in which so much is happening, we are oddly limited in what we can air. But the lid will finally fly off the pressure cooker at 10pm when the polling stations close, and the results of the exit poll are announced, which will set the mood for the rest of the night.

Eyes will also be on voter turnout. Gibraltar is intensely politically switched on, and boasts voting figures which western democracies look at with a mixture of envy and bewilderment. But by our standards, 71 percent in 2015 was low.

Political analysts will tell you that poor turnouts are good news for incumbent governments, while high turnouts indicate a penchant for change. Given Gibraltar’s unusually high levels of political activity, the small fluctuations are not always as much of an indicator as they would be in large democracies, but they certainly don’t go unnoticed.

It’s an exciting time. The battle lines are drawn. And it all kicks off for real tonight.

For more on GBC’s coverage of the election campaign, check out this link.