Abela’s co-options: Widening the talent pool or promoting loyalists?

Robert Abela is not inventing the wheel by resorting to co-options for fresh blood in his parliamentary group. But does it betray a more presidential style of government in which handpicked MPs are more accountable to the leader than to voters, asks James Debono

Co-opted by Robert Abela (centre) - from left, Oliver Scicluna, Clyde Caruana and to the right, Miriam Dalli. Opposition leader Bernard Grech was co-opted to the House.
Co-opted by Robert Abela (centre) - from left, Oliver Scicluna, Clyde Caruana and to the right, Miriam Dalli. Opposition leader Bernard Grech was co-opted to the House.

When an MP resigns from parliament, his or her replacement is normally found through a casual election in which district votes in the previous election are re-opened and the candidate inheriting most votes through the Single Transferable Vote system is elected.

But co-options which see the replacement handpicked by the party’s leadership are possible in three circumstances, namely: when the MP who resigned had been elected in a casual election; when all possible replacements who previously contested the district have already been elected to parliament or are no longer eligible; or when none of the candidates eligible to contest a casual election actually present their candidature to the electoral commission.

Giving up a life dream

These legal provisions made co-options rare simply because few candidates would miss on their once-in-a-lifetime chance of becoming MPs. Any candidate on the list, even those with a minimal number of votes, could thwart any attempt to avoid a casual election.  

One clear-cut way of co-opting a new MP is when they are chosen to replace someone elected in a casual election. For example, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli found her way into parliament as a replacement for backbencher Etienne Grech, who resigned inexplicably in what was widely interpreted as a shrewd move by Robert Abela to inject new blood in his government. Jonathan Attard was also co-opted following Manuel Mallia’s appointment as British High Commissioner.   

But party leaders can also exploit a significant ‘loophole’ by persuading all party candidates eligible to contest a particular seat not to present their candidature, thus paving the way for a candidate handpicked by the party leadership. Yet this depends on the willingness of all those involved cooperating with the leadership by giving up on a lifelong dream. And it come at a cost for those who renounce a possible seat, even expecting a reward for their loyalty.

Clockwise from top left: Clyde Caruana, Miriam Dalli, Andy Ellul, Oliver Scicluna and Jonathan Attard
Clockwise from top left: Clyde Caruana, Miriam Dalli, Andy Ellul, Oliver Scicluna and Jonathan Attard

This was the case in the election of Finance Minister Clyde Caruana who was co-opted to parliament after the only two eligible Labour candidates from the second district, namely Stefan Buontempo and Mark Causon, failed to submit their nomination in a casual election after the resignation of Joseph Muscat from MP. It was also the case with Andy Ellul, who was coopted after none of the five remaining Labour candidates from the third district, including Marsaskala mayor Mario Calleja presented their candidature. 

A mockery of democracy?

In the absence of the full cooperation of all candidates, a co-option may still take place after the candidate who gets elected in the casual election immediately renounces his seat.

Yet this is where things can get messy. For example, Oliver Scicuna’s co-option in 2021 was only made possible after the immediate resignation of Gavin Gulia, who was elected in a casual election forced on the party after its former Rabat mayor Charles Azzopardi later defected to the PN, refusing to renounce his candidature in the casual election. This made Gavin Gulia’s tenure one of the shortest ever in the history of the republic, and one which made a mockery of the democratic process. In this case the public outrage was only defused by the choice of a respectable candidate like Scicluna.

Yet this was not without precedent from the other side of the Rubicon. Back in 2017 Adrian Delia’s path to parliament upon his election as party leader was only made possible by the resignation of close ally Jean Pierre Debono, which triggered a casual election which resulted in the election of Peter Micallef who immediately gave up his seat to trigger Delia’s co-option.

Delia’s convoluted pathway to parliament was dictated by Marlene Farrugia’s Democratic Party’s stubborn refusal to withdraw its candidates who had contested on a joint PN-PD platform, from contesting the casual election.

Widening the talent pool: technocrats

While co-options have been a rare but acceptable feature of democratic life in Maltese politics, the co-option of five new Labour MPs under the tenure of Robert Abela as Prime Minister in the space of a two years, has raised questions of democratic legitimacy, simply because these MPs, two of which are now serving ministers, were not elected in a general election.

This has been interpreted as a way for Abela to create his own solid bloc of loyalists in a legislature inherited from his disgraced predecessor. It also provided him with an opportunity to widen his limited talent pool, with Clyde Caruana and Miriam Dalli injecting dynamism in his Cabinet and Oliver Scicluna bringing his experience in inclusion into the parliamentary group.

From left: Adrian Delia, Kevin Cutajar and Bernard Grech
From left: Adrian Delia, Kevin Cutajar and Bernard Grech

The risk is that candidates co-opted to parliament may be more accountable to the party leader who handpicked them, then to voters. Moreover they are being given an advantage over rival Labour candidates, just weeks before a general election.

The systematic use of co-options also betrays Abela’s preference for a more presidential style of government, evident in his recent invitation during a session of the youth parliament for a national discussion on whether prime ministers should be allowed to appoint technocrats to Cabinet, even though they are not elected to parliament.

This kind of position had been previously privately entertained by Lawrence Gonzi who had complained of his limited talent pool in a leaked United States cable on a meeting with former US ambassador Molly Bordonaro. Yet Abela is not inventing the wheel even if co-options were used more judiciously.

Eddie Fenech Adami and Alfred Sant were also co-opted

Both Eddie Fenech Adami and Alfred Sant were initially co-opted to parliament after failing to get elected in previous elections. It is hard to imagine the trajectory of their career had they not been handpicked by the party leadership to take a parliamentary seat. Ironically Borg Olivier’s decision to co-opt Eddie Fenech Adami came back to haunt him, as the young Birkirkara lawyer grew in stature to eventually replace him.

Before being co-opted, Fenech Adami had unsuccessfully contested the 1962 and 1966 elections, only to become MP in 1969 following a co-option for the seat of Ġorġ Caruana who had previously been elected in a casual election.

Labour prime minister Alfred Sant was also co-opted to parliament to fill a vacant seat upon the death of Labour MP Joseph P. Sciberras. Yet both Fenech Adami and Sant were already big shots in their party, with the former already serving as president of the Administrative and General Councils, assistant secretary-general, and editor of PN organ Il-Poplu, and the latter as Labour Party president.

Both became party leader after serving a number of years as MPs and both were re-elected on their own steam to parliament in elections in 1971 and in 1992, respectively. This was not the case with other party leaders who were not sitting MPs upon their election as party leaders.

Muscat, Delia, Grech: Making way for the new leader

Joseph Muscat was also co-opted following his election as party leader after the 2008 election, after Labour MP Joseph Cuschieri gave up his seat. Yet Muscat was already a big shot in the party, having been elected as an MEP in 2004 with 37,000 first preference votes.  

Muscat also remained in ‘debt’ with Cuschieri, who was first fielded as an MEP candidate in 2009 (having only taken his seat after Malta was awarded a sixth seat in 2011) and subsequently appointed ambassador to Greece, despite lacking any experience in international diplomacy.

Both Adrian Delia and Bernard Grech, two political outsiders with no constituency base, were also co-opted to parliament after being elected by party members.

And while Delia’s path to parliament was messy thanks to internal party strife and the insubordination of the Democratic Party, Grech’s path to parliament was more of a formality following the resignation of entrepreneur Ivan Bartolo, who had himself been elected in a casual election.

Internal party strife also prevented Delia from rewarding Jean Pierre Debono for his sacrifice in vacating his seat. His plan to co-opt Debono back to parliament after David Stellini’s resignation, was thwarted by the party’s Gozo section’s insistence on the co-option of a Gozitan MP since Stellini himself had been elected in a casual election instead of Gozitan MP Marthese Portelli. Ultimately the party opted for the co-option of Kevin Cutajar.

So what makes the use of co-options by Robert Abela any different from previous ones?  The legal mechanisms surely remain the same and Abela is not re-inventing the wheel.

The only difference is the systematic use of the mechanism in such a short timeframe, dictated by the unprecedented circumstances which saw Abela struggling to leave his mark in an administration inherited from his larger-than-life, but disgraced, predecessor.