Let the people elect the president

There is no reason why Malta cannot go down the same route as Ireland, Austria and other countries in creating a system that empowers voters to choose the head of state

George Vella’s term as president ends on 4 April and by then we can only hope that parliament would have already voted on his replacement. 

However, we will not hold our breath. The next president has to be voted in with a two-thirds majority following a constitutional amendment approved in the last legislature. 

Until now, the president only required a simple majority in parliament to be chosen, which invariably meant that the party in government always got its way. 

Apart from Sir Anthony Mamo – the first president – all his successors hailed from the political party in government at the time, bar one. It was only Lawrence Gonzi, who as prime minister, ditched the names of prospective Nationalist Party contenders and proposed former Labour leader contender George Abela (Robert Abela’s father) as president. 

One may argue rightfully, that Gonzi could not ignore the 2008 election result that saw the PN win by a relative majority when choosing the next head of state. Nonetheless, he could have ploughed ahead regardless, which makes his choice a brave one that flew in the face of strong internal PN criticism. 

Now, the two-thirds rule will require the government and the Opposition to reach consensus on a name. Judging by how the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader handled, or rather mishandled, the appointments of the Ombudsman and the Standards Commissioner, the president’s choice is unlikely to be a walk in the park. 

The problem is that a two-thirds majority for the appointment of head of state in a duopolistic political environment is bound to cause headaches unless there is an anti-deadlock mechanism. 

Unfortunately, when the Constitution was amended no such anti-deadlock mechanism was introduced and the constitutional nature of the rules makes any such change now impossible to achieve unless both sides agree. 

If no consensus is reached on a name, Vella will have to stay on at San Anton until his replacement is agreed upon. And if the President decides to quit when his term is up, the onus will fall on the acting president, currently academic Frank Bezzina, or the Speaker of the House, to fulfil the presidential duties until the vacancy is filled. 

It will not be the first time that an acting president would have served for a length of time. In 1987, Paul Xuereb was appointed acting president by the outgoing Labour government and remained so for more than two years before the incoming Nationalist administration put forward Ċensu Tabone’s name. 

This leader hopes that in the coming weeks Robert Abela and Bernard Grech can sit down like two mature adults to agree on an individual with the gravitas to occupy the role of head of state. Abela will have to do a lot of listening but Grech also has to show willingness to compromise. Unfortunately, the chemistry between the two is anything but ideal, thus scuppering any hope of reaching a swift agreement. 

But it may be the appropriate moment as well to discuss a radically different system of selecting the president that would take the choice out of the hands of our MPs and place it squarely in the hands of the electorate. 

This leader believes it is high time that the president is elected to office by the people in a vote that takes place two months before the incumbent’s term ends. 

A presidential election would bypass the parliamentary deadlock and allow voters to choose the president they want. 

Contestants for president, who should be 35 and older, will have to nominate themselves and will run as individuals and not on a party ticket. Political parties may express support for one candidate or another but campaigning will be restricted to the presidential contestants. 

If none of the presidential contenders gets 50% plus one of the vote in the first round, a run-off will take place between the top two contenders. 

In this way, the possibility grows of having a wider pool of names from which the people can choose their president. A president can only serve two consecutive terms. 

This method of selection need not alter the limited powers the president has today. Malta does not need to usher in a presidential-style of democracy like France and the US. There are other examples where presidents are chosen by popular vote and yet the post is largely ceremonial in nature. Ireland and Austria are two such examples. 

There is no reason why Malta cannot go down the same route as Ireland, Austria and other countries in creating a system that empowers voters to choose the head of state. 

And if anyone argues that an election is divisive in nature, the end result will be no different from what we have had until now – individuals, who in their previous incarnation were politically divisive and overnight were expected to become national figures. The major difference, however, would be that the individual elected president by the people will enjoy the public’s explicit consent in a democratic exercise.