A loss for the people?

The next President should be able to offer a social, reconciliatory hand and straddle the political divide as a unifying figurehead, embracing an understanding for political and non-political viewpoints alike.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The reported choice of Marie Louise Coleiro Preca really begs the question as to why the prime minister wants to move one of his most popular ministers out of the Cabinet and into a ceremonial post.

Coleiro Preca is one of Labour's 'organic' members, a long-serving MP who understands the inner workings of the party - having served as its president during a less pleasant period of the party's history - and whose dedication to social issues and the reality of poverty in Malta makes her a unique government minister.

Ceding Coleiro Preca to the high office of president will undoubtedly rob the government of a strong voice in the social arena, someone who can rein in the pro-business agendas of other ministers when these conflict with the need to retain the social aspect in the economy.

It would mean having a seasoned MP who has just only been given ministerial office, 'sentenced' to an ineffectual presidency and perhaps consigned to a career that will not include politics. For seldom do presidents return to politics, if not to address a mass meeting in desperate times, as Eddie Fenech Adami did in 2013.

As President George Abela's five-year term draws to a close, it remains all the more important that his successor is allowed to revisit the concept of the Presidency and its relevance to Maltese society.

It is certainly not the time for an Opposition to expect that 'someone from the Nationalist stable' be appointed to the presidency as some form of courtesy recognition of former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi's appointment of George Abela (a former Labour deputy leader) in 2008. Abela's appointment came at the tail-end of a long line of PN grandees appointed to the post, namely Censu Tabone, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Guido de Marco and Eddie Fenech Adami. A balance act to have a Nationalist appointment occupy a largely ceremonial role, would only provide an illusory 'balance of power'. It largely presupposes that a kind of political tit-for-tat should now become the order of the day according to who is in government and who is in Opposition.

The next President should be able to offer a social, reconciliatory hand and straddle the political divide as a unifying figurehead, embracing an understanding for political and non-political viewpoints alike.

The results of a MaltaToday survey about the Presidency found that 57% would prefer a president from outside the sphere of partisan politics: yet when asked to supply names, nearly all respondents left the option blank. This in itself represents the kind of problem that faces not just the public but also prime ministers: which non-political, public figures possess the necessary cross-party appeal to be a unifying president?

Since 1974, only one President - the first - was technically a non-political appointee, while another acting President was likewise chosen from outside the partisan circuit. The rest were nearly all party grandees, with even a President Emeritus addressing a political mass meeting on the eve of an election.

President George Abela was never generally regarded as a divisive figure in Maltese politics even at the height of his political career.

Coleiro Preca's appointment to president is most certain to welcome controversy from the Nationalist camp, which will not be eager at a Labour appointment, especially one from the current crop of ministers. They will also be keen to spin this appointment as a kick upstairs for someone who once contested the Labour leadership, and who retains one of the top vote counts amongst Labour MPs. They will say that Muscat has got rid of a popular MP to consolidate his hold on his Cabinet of ministers.

Whatever the interpretation of this appointment, Coleiro Preca will be a loss to this administration. Whether the gain for the presidency will be a long-term one, is yet to be seen.

More in Editorial