Next President after George Vella? There probably won’t even be one…

Savour the experience of living in a sovereign, independent Republic, for as long it actually lasts… because something tells me Vella may well end up becoming the last President, this country has ever had

OK, OK: I know I started last year with a resolution to ‘always look at the bright side of life’. But let’s be honest: that didn’t exactly turn out to be a roaring success in the end… did it now?

No, indeed. It seems that – despite my very best efforts (and I really did try, you know) – the world now finds itself in an infinitely worse place, than when I originally made that ill-fated New Year’s Resolution a mere 12 months ago.

Almost everywhere you look, there is now nothing but war; poverty; inflation; corruption; environmental degradation; celebrity billionaires behaving like little cry-babies (whilst effectively controlling every single government’s entire economic policy-direction, for the foreseeable future…)

And if that’s not depressing enough for you: over the past year, we’ve also lost some of the most distinguished, influential and history-defining personalities, that the world has ever seen.

Like Meat Loaf, for instance. Or Robbie Coltrane; Angela Lansbury; Olivia Newton-John; Christine McVie… even Coolio, for crying out loud! (I mean: come on, 2022! Did you really have to take 90% of my entire adolescence with you, when you walked out that door?)

Not to mention all those other celebrity-deaths that – although admittedly minor, by comparison – nonetheless provoked mourning, gnashing-of-teeth, and great public acts of self-flagellation, in large parts of the world. Queen Elizabeth II; Pope Benedict; Mikhail Gorbachev; Kristie Alley (from ‘Cheers’)…

See what I mean? It’s almost as though the Fates are trying to tell me something, here. Something along the lines of: ‘Careful what sort of New Year’s Resolutions you actually make, because… well, they can backfire quite badly, you know!”

And besides: this is, after all, my first article of 2023… and isn’t that what “celebrating the New Year” is supposed to be all about? ‘New Year, New Me’, and all the rest of that unmitigated bull-crap?

So without further ado: seeing as how the ‘Old Me’ clearly failed to divert the course of human history, as intended… I may as well try something completely different this year. In fact, for the rest of 2023, I hereby resolve to only ever   look at things from the most pessimistic, ‘worst-case-scenario’, and utterly ‘doom-and-gloom’ perspective, that I can possibly muster (in the hope, naturally, that 2023 will go the same way as its predecessor… and deliver the opposite instead).

And what better place to start, than with the one institution which (on this little rock, anyway) represents the very foundation-stone of our country’s status as a sovereign, independent state? The Republic of Malta, no less?

That’s right, folks: this article shall accurately predict the downfall of the entire Maltese Republic, by the end of 2023 (though I expect it to actually start happening in around three to four weeks’ time). And my prediction rests squarely on the following facts:

1) That incumbent President George Vella (whose term of office expires in February 2024, by the way) has repeatedly threatened to resign, if asked to ratify any bill that – in his view – ‘legalises abortion’, in any shape or form;

2) That Parliament is currently discussing an amendment (Bill 28) that would effectively allow for the ‘termination of pregnancy’ – that’s another term for ‘abortion’, right there – in cases where the mother’s health is in ‘serious jeopardy’… with the final vote expected to be taken towards the end of this month.

3) Effectively, then, Bill 28 will land on President Vella’s desk for ratification, by not later than around the first or second week of February; and Vella himself has already indicated that – unlike the case with IVF – this time, he will not be leaving the islands for a sudden, impromptu ‘holiday abroad’.

Right, I’ll stop there for now: because already it appears that President Vella has painted himself into a corner, whereby ‘resignation’ is the only possible remaining option. This was all rather neatly explained in an article by my colleague James Debono; so to save time, I’ll just quote this part:

“In his book, Il-Manwal tal-President (The President’s Manual), the only guide to interpreting the Constitution, former president Ugo Mifsud Bonnici argues the president cannot refrain from giving assent to an act of parliament because it goes against his principles or morality. […] If the president feels that his conscience does not allow him to assent, he should resign…”

[Note: I freely concede that President George Vella could very easily extricate himself from this quandary, by simply saying… ‘Hey, guess what? I’ve changed my mind!’ But don’t forget: I’m not looking at ALL possible scenarios, here… only the ‘worst-case’ ones.]

So make no mistake: before the first two months of 2023 are up, George Vella will have no remaining option, but to tender his resignation as President of the Maltese Republic, with immediate effect. And as James Debono also rightly notes: “This will create a constitutional crisis and a political problem for the government…”

But this, in turn, only brings us to two other, rather significant considerations.

For starters: while the Constitution itself does not specifically make provisions for the resignation of a sitting president, Article 49 reads: “Whenever the office of President is temporarily vacant, and until a new President is appointed… those functions shall be performed by such person as the Prime Minister, after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, may appoint or, if there is no person in Malta so appointed and able to perform those functions, by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Now: this would almost certainly be enough to overcome the immediate hurdle – i.e., the question of actually getting Bill 28 ratified, in the absence of any incumbent president – because government can simply do what it did the last time: and re-appoint acting president Frank Bezzina, to sign it in George Vella’s stead.

But government cannot PERMANENTLY appoint Bezzina – or anyone else – as a replacement for Vella, because…

… well, that was the whole point of the Constitutional amendment of February 2020. Remember? The one which changed Article 48 (that actually regulates the ‘appointment of Presidents’) so that it now - for the first time ever, please note – reads:

a) “There shall be a President of Malta who shall be appointed by Resolution supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members of the House”, and;

b) “[…] if the Resolution is not supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members of the House, the person occupying the office of the President of Malta shall, in any circumstance, remain in office until the Resolution is supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members of the House.”

Translated from the legalistic gobbledygook, that means that Malta’s next President after George Vella (whether the latter actually resigns, or not) has to be appointed by a two-thirds majority; and in the event that no such agreement is ever reached – and let’s face it: it’s not exactly what you’d call a ‘strong likelihood’, is it? - the ‘person occupying the office of the President of Malta’ simply stays on, indefinitely, until such time as the two sides of the House actually agree.

Do I need to continue? What would happen if President Vella DOES resign… leaving the country WITHOUT any ‘person occupying the office’, to actually be kept in it for the duration of the crisis?

OK, I know what you’re probably thinking. You could, I suppose, always argue that Bezzina himself (or any other temporary replacement, chosen by the Prime Minister) would technically be ‘occupying the office’, at the time… and therefore, could be retained as acting-president, for as long as necessary, without actually violating Article 49 of the Constitution…

… but only as ACTING President, because – as per Article 48 – any ‘permanent’ replacement would still need to be formally approved by that all-important two-thirds majority… if he/she is ever to be considered a fully-functional, Constitutionally legitimate ‘President of the Republic’, in his/her own right.

And because we are living at a time when Malta’s traditional political divide has never been (at least, not in my lifetime) as utterly unbridgeable, as it is today… what are the chances that the Opposition party would ever agree, to a ‘two-thirds majority’ that would – by definition - also bring about a permanent solution, to a problem that would actually make Malta UNGOVERNABLE, under its present (Labour) administration?

In other words: why the bleeding hell should Bernard Grech even consider HELPING (!) Robert Abela, out of an ‘embarrassing’ crisis that can only ever weaken his own government (to the great advantage of Grech’s own party)?

Sorry, but: even if I hadn’t only just made a public New Year’s Resolution, to ‘only look at the pessimistic side of life’… I would still consider that to be an absolute impossibility: at almost any time in Malta’s recent history; but even more so, in today’s hopelessly confrontational, hopelessly antagonistic, and… well, basically just ‘hopeless’ political climate.

So, um, what can I say? I suggest you all savour the experience of living in a sovereign, independent Republic, for as long it actually lasts… because something tells me that - when he resigns from office, in a few weeks’ time -George Vella may well end up becoming the last President, this country has ever had.

Oh, and one other thing before I forget…

… Happy New Year, folks!