Opposition to blame if change in method of president’s appointment doesn’t go through – Justice Minister

Edward Zammit Lewis insists Opposition will be responsible if, due to disagreement on anti-deadlock mechanism, it blocks change in method of president’s election to require two-thirds majority

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis was speaking in Parliament on Tuesday
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis was speaking in Parliament on Tuesday

It will be the Opposition’s fault if it blocks a change in the way Malta’s president is elected, thereby preventing the implementation of reforms requested by the Venice Commission, the Justice Minister said.

Edward Zammit Lewis insisted in Parliament on Tuesday that if the Opposition voted against an amendment to the Constitution to require that the next president is appointed through a two-thirds majority in the House, then it should shoulder responsibility for holding back institutional reforms.

Parliament is currently debating a Bill which will change the way in which the president is elected, to make it necessary that a Head of State only be appointed if two-thirds of Parliament agree on who to elect.

However, the Opposition has indicated that it is against the Bill’s “deadlock mechanism”, which stipulates that, if after two rounds of voting, the nominated candidate fails to obtain the support of two-thirds of MPs, the nominee will then be elected through an absolute majority in the House.

On Monday, PN MP Chris Said insisted the Opposition would be voting against the Bill because it was against the deadlock mechanism.

For the Bill to go through, a two-thirds majority in Parliament must vote in favour of it.

Zammit Lewis made it clear that, should the proposed reform not receive the necessary majority in favour, he would be informing the Venice Commission that the Opposition was blocking it.

“I will keep going forward with these reforms, and we will be open for discussions. But the Opposition will shoulder responsibility with its verdict. I will write to the Venice Commission to tell them that the government wants to push reforms [but that the Opposition doesn’t].”

The minister also highlighted that the anti-deadlock mechanism was similar to the one specified in a list of institutional reform proposals presented by then Opposition leader Simon Busuttil in 2015.

Addressing Parliament, PN MP and whip Robert Cutajar said that while the Opposition would vote against the Bill in its second reading stage, it remained open to more discussions in committee stage with an aim towards reaching an agreement with the government on amendments to the proposed law.

“This is with a view towards re-considering our vote in the Bill’s third reading,” Cutajar said.

He added that he had requested the Zammit Lewis and Said carry out more discussions to clarify the disagreements about the Bill.

Opposition cannot be in favour of Bill in current form

PN MP Jason Azzopardi said the Opposition could never be in favour of laws which created a “fallback position” in cases where a two-thirds majority is not reached for the appointment of the President, and of other important roles, namely the Chief Justice.

“Especially after the December 2018 Venice Commission report, the Opposition and civil society have always been consistent and unanimous in insisting that the President and Chief Justice should be appointed by a two-thirds majority, and that there should not be a fallback position of an absolute majority [through the anti-deadlock mechanism],” Azzopardi said.

“The system should require two-thirds, period… How can we avoid the criticism of the Venice Commission if this is not addressed?”

“So, our appeal is: there is still a chance, if there is really good faith, to overcome these obstacles,” he added.

The debate on changes in the way the Head of State is appointed come as the country’s focus has been on President George Vella, who this week used his reserve powers to make a decision related to Adrian Delia’s role as Opposition leader.

Using his Constitutional power to exercise judgment on the issue, Vella decided that, despite establishing that Delia had lost the support of the majority of his MPs, he should not be stripped of his role as Opposition leader because he remained the leader of the biggest party in Opposition.

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