A verdict that doesn’t resolve the impasse

Delia has no appreciation of his political ineffectiveness in facing up to Labour, and prefers to seek out the victory of litigation with his internal adversaries than the greater interest of the need for a strong, vocal opposition that can command unity and confidence

The long-awaited verdict by the President of the Republic – who decided that Adrian Delia should remain Opposition leader, even though he lost the confidence of a majority of his own MPs – has raised questions about the reliability of the Constitution, as a blueprint for the establishment of a functional state.

When it comes to removing and appointing Opposition leaders, the relevant articles are 90(2)a and 90(2)b respectively which state that:

90(2)a “if there is one opposition party whose numerical strength in the House of Representatives is greater than the strength of any other opposition party, [the President shall appoint] the member of the House of Representatives who is the Leader of that party”, and;

90(2)b “[the President shall appoint] the member of the House who, in the judgment of the President, commands the support of the largest single group of members of the House in opposition to the Government who are prepared to support one leader.”

Under normal circumstances – when there is no direct challenge to the incumbent – Article 90(2)a specifically provides that the leader of the largest party in opposition is appointed Opposition leader by the President.

Article 90(4) comes into play if the President is satisified that the incumbent leader has lost the trust of a majority of Opposition MPs: as has happened, for the first time in our country’s history.

But from the outset, this article has been subject to different, conflicting interpretations.

What is meant by the ‘single, largest group’ of MPs? Could it refer to any grouping of like-minded MPs, who agree to support a single person as Opposition leader? If so, a group of 16 Nationalist MPs who openly declare their support for one member – in this case, Therese Commodini Cachia – would surely qualify.

Or does it have to be an established political formation in its own right: for example, a group of independent Nationalists or a coalition of numerous smaller parties that collectively wield a greater majority than any one political party representing the Opposition in the same Parliament?

Applying this latter interpretation, it would seem that the President could only act to appoint the rebel MPs’ choice of Opposition leader, should they form their own grouping in the House as independent Nationalists.

Either way, President George Vella has clearly decided to interpret ‘single largest group’ along the lines of an organised political formation, rather than just as a group of Opposition MPs from within an existing party.

But while this interpretation must perforce be respected, it does little to resolve the impasse itself. In spirit, a functional Constitution is surely expected to allow the President to remove an Opposition Leader who has lost majority backing, to replace him or her with another who enjoys the support of a larger number of MPs.

Failure to recognise this principle would ultimately mean that it is impossible to oust any Opposition leader who loses a confidence vote: a situation that can only be described as absurd.

Indeed, the President’s interpretation of the Constitution might well have anticipated that a decision to go against its literal meaning, and appoint Delia’s rival, would have invited a Constitutional case from the PN leader.

As things stand, it is the rebel faction that could now institute a Constitutional case instead. And this may even be for the best: for the Constitutional Court is surely the right venue to determine which of these conflicting interpretations is, in fact, correct.

However, the situation has tripped the logic of replacing an Opposition leader who loses the trust of his MPs… leaving us without any clear exit strategy from the current political crisis.

What is clear now is the split inside the PN, and the war of attrition that follows. The MPs who expressed themselves in a vote of no-confidence against Delia have indeed every right to demand that the under-performing leader has to move out.

Delia has no appreciation of his political ineffectiveness in facing up to Labour, and prefers to seek out the victory of litigation with his internal adversaries than the greater interest of the need for a strong, vocal opposition that can command unity and confidence.

As such, the President’s decision can only compound the problems affecting the functionality of the present Opposition: with serious ramifications for the democratic process.

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