Politicise the Presidency? No, thanks

My guess is that the Council of Europe simply got their files muddled up, and issued the wrong country report by mistake. They might have mixed us up with somewhere like France...

President Marie-Louise Coleiro
President Marie-Louise Coleiro

You know what? I’m beginning to seriously suspect that the ongoing epidemic of extreme idiocy, that had previously been confined largely to institutions such as the European Parliament, has begun to spread beyond the confines of the EU.

This week, the Council of Europe – a much older and more firmly established institution, of which we have been members since the 1970s – issued a report making a number of recommendations to bring our institutional set-up up to European standards.

OK, I won’t pick any bones with some of those suggestions. I happen to agree with raising the remuneration of MPs, for instance. Not, perhaps, the way former Prime Minister Gonzi tried to go about it, way back when… but (and I believe I said so at the time, too) it was his method, not the objective itself, that was questionable.

And it is also true that the Prime Minister enjoys way too much discretion within our political system; and that we need to “reinforce systems of checks and balances to mitigate [his] predominance.”

Whether we needed the CoE to point any of this out, however, is another question. As I recall, Alternattiva Demokratika has been making the same point with every electoral manifesto since around 1990. As for the two main parties, those complain about the situation whenever they’re in Opposition… only to defend the status quo whenever they’re in government. Bottom line is: none of this is ‘new’. We all know what the problems are, and where they reside; what some of us we were hoping for from the Council of Europe, though, was a workable mechanism through which these issues can realistically be addressed.

To save time, we can safely discount from beforehand any proposed mechanism which relies only on ‘parliament’ to wave a magic wand at issues, in the hope that they will just ‘go away’. In case the rest of Europe hasn’t realized yet, Malta’s parliament has been hogged almost exclusively by those two, alternating ‘Yins’ and ‘Yangs’ for almost five and a half decades. And their interest is certainly NOT in divesting themselves of any of the raw, undiluted power they have gluttonously accumulated for themselves in the meantime.

In a nutshell, what I myself was expecting was a model that would actually re-distribute political power in a slightly more sensible way; that would remove some of the legal and political impediments to doing all the stuff that is necessary, but politically unpopular…

But hey, enough of ‘what I want’… otherwise, this might end up being my own, long-overdue letter to Father Christmas. (Note: don’t know why I still bother, because I’ve been sending him the same note for 42 years: ‘Dear Santa: I promise I’ve been a good boy all year round… now get your fat arse down that chimney, and start filling those blooming stockings. Fond regards, and love to Rudolph, etc.’) 

Oddly enough, I have now amassed enough natural coal deposits of my own to finally start competing with Shell and BP. Like they say, Christmas has sure got commercial these days…

But hang on, where was I? Ah yes, the Council of Europe report. Among other things, it recommends making the choice of President ‘subject to a qualified majority in parliament’… oh, and it also suggests a ‘public competition’ for the selection of Police Commissioner (but I’m planning a whole article dedicated just to that one: it’s called ‘The Feneks Factor’. Watch this space…)

For now, however, I’ll stick to the presidency. My guess is that the CoE simply got their files muddled up, and issued the wrong country report by mistake. They might have mixed us up with somewhere like France, for example: where the (elected) Presidency is an entirely executive arm of the state, wielding powers on a par with the national parliament.

In reality, however, Malta’s (appointed) Presidency is actually far closer to the British monarchy model… which our system was ultimately designed to replace (the previous head of state was in fact the British Governor, as proxy for the Crown).

This might explain why there is no reference, anywhere in the report, to our President’s primary function… i.e., to act as a unifying figure for our woefully divided Republic. Unsurprisingly, it is also this role of ‘figurehead’ that is most directly undermined by the Council of Europe’s harebrained proposal (which, by the way, Prime Minister Muscat has already said he wants to implement).

To appreciate how thoroughly it would pervert the historical/Constitutional role of the President of Malta… just imagine if Britain were to adopt the same system instead. When Queen Elizabeth passes away (as in fact she must, some day), Prince Charles would have to wait for approval by a qualified majority (say, two thirds of the House of Commons) before he could ascend the throne.

OK, that situation may be a little more bizarre because the British monarchy – unlike Malta’s Republic – also involves the small matter of ‘heredity’. There is always going to be one, preordained heir to the throne: so if Prince Charles were to be rejected by Parliament, the choice would automatically fall to Prince William next. Then Prince Harry. Then Bonnie Prince Billy, or Princess Leah Organa, or whoever else comes next in line.

Malta doesn’t have that ‘continuity mode’ to fall back on. It is a position conferred by appointment only. And yes, the appointment is made by the Cabinet (supposedly after ‘consultation’ with the Opposition). But it’s basically still a choice of one person at a time. So a parliamentary deadlock would simply send us all back to the drawing board, each and every time.

Which reminds me: the CoE also recommends some sort of ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’ to go with the new model. But exactly how this mechanism might be expected to work, if (or should I say when) Parliament fails to agree on the choice of President in future, seems to be something we’re all supposed to figure out for ourselves.

But no matter: let’s just do what the CoE did, and simply assume that such a legal proviso does exist, can be made workable in practice. All it would do Is avoid the immediacy of a crisis. It will not have any effect on the political polarization that would no doubt arise from such a stalemate anyway. And in our system, part of the whole rationale behind having a ‘President’ in the first place (and not, say, a ‘Warlord’, or a ‘Shogun’), is to mitigate political tensions and divisions…. not to blinking add to them.

At this point, we may need to look at another hypothetical situation. Let’s say Prime Minister nominates President-designate X for the job (he will do so soon enough); Opposition objects, and insists on candidate Y instead (note: so far, nothing hypothetical about it at all. Happens every time… in fact, Adrian Delia is already applying pressure for a ‘non-Labour’ successor to Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca as we speak). From this point on, a number of possibilities arise.

Horse-trading takes place behind the scenes, and eventually Government and Opposition agree on a third, mutually acceptable candidate. Crisis avoided.

Negotiations fail, no vote is taken… and I guess we have to leave it to the ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’, as Malta cannot realistically be left without a President forever;

Government pushes for a vote in parliament regardless, and it goes into a long-drawn out debate… leading to either:

Defeat for Government (go back two spaces), or;

Enough Opposition members vote against party lines to reach the necessary two-thirds majority. President is approved.

Interestingly enough, Number 5 bears a vague resemblance to the process that led to Malta first becoming a Republic in 1974: i.e. the creation of the Office of the Presidency itself. And which also led to an acrimonious change in Opposition leadership, and more than a decade of some of the most turbulent political violence this country has ever seen (unless you count the French blockade of 1898, of course; but let’s not get carried away).

And this is why I, for one, would not be too quick to bin our existing Presidential model – whatever its other flaws – just yet… least of all, not for a system as half-baked and self-defeating as this one. For even if, on paper, the system does appear to neglect the ‘checks and balances’ side of things… in practice, it has served its other function well so far. And that is something I can’t really say for many other national institutions off the top of my head.

This success is doubly significant, too, given that every single President ever nominated by a Maltese prime minister – with only two exceptions (one of whom was acting-president) – were previously politicians; and that all our Presidents but one (George Abela) were appointed from within the prime minister’s own party.

Curiously, though, even the ones I least expected to live up to that crucial, ceremonial unifying role - i.e., those whose political baggage seemed to outweigh their other merits or credentials - somehow managed to pull it off. Maybe it’s something in the water at the San Anton Palace… but whoever gets to live there for a short while, really does seems to transform into a slightly less divisive and more unifying persona. Not because it is necessarily ‘written into’ the Constitutional definition of the role; but possibly because the Presidency itself, for all its flaws, really does enjoy a broader trust and respect among the Maltese people than other institutions.

If so, I would even venture to suggest that part of this respect is itself down to continued tradition of Maltese Presidents genuinely putting aside their political differences, and growing into the role. It is a ‘trust’ that is not simply conferred upon them upon accepting the Presidency; it has to be earned afresh, by each new President, every time.   

Well, one surefire way to make this task impossible is to simply ‘politicise the Presidency’: to transform it into yet another cause for, at best, political horse-trading behind the scenes; at worst, the focal point for even angrier, more toxic and more confrontational politics than we already have today.

All things considered… no, thank you very much. I still much prefer the Presidency as it is: warts, blemishes and all.

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