The President’s powers

Though Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appears entirely confident about his nomination of Marie Louise Coleiro Preca as President of the Republic, there may still be concerns about this appointment.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca - from Minister to President
Marie Louise Coleiro Preca - from Minister to President

The announcement of Marie Louise Coleiro Preca’s imminent appointment as new President was met with mixed reactions, with segments of the electorate, including die-hard Labourites, decrying her loss from the Cabinet of Ministers.

MaltaToday surveys show that the Qormi MP is the most popular minister in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Cabinet and, while announcing the decision last Tuesday, Muscat himself admitted that her promotion to San Anton Palace was a “loss”.

However, Muscat insisted that his government’s loss would be the country’s gain, envisaging a presidency, which represents the country’s “social soul.”

Other critics have voiced suspicions that Muscat intends to plough ahead with a neoliberal agenda while the new President will merely be a powerless voice of the voiceless.

On the other hand, the move was welcomed by the more optimistic segment of the electorate who interpreted her nomination as a positive step in the country’s struggle against poverty and social exclusion.

Describing Coleiro Preca’s presidency as an “experiment,” Muscat has indicated that she will head the National Strategy against Poverty, the food aid programme, the National Forum for the Family, the National Commission for the Family, the National Commission for Development and Children Strategy, the Commission against Domestic Violence, the Commission against substance abuse and the National Prevention Agency.

Moreover, the current social policy minister has indicated that “she’s here to stay,” and intends to remain heavily involved in the social field.

In her first television appearance since becoming President-designate on this week’s edition of Reporter, Coleiro Preca spoke on the need to overcome the fear on migration and cited the Scandinavian model as a blueprint for Malta’s policy on migration.

While a vociferous President could undoubtedly provide much needed moral leadership, the executive power strictly remains within the Cabinet of Ministers. 

Does the Constitution need to be changed?

While Muscat is clearly attempting to shape the Presidency to suit his political exigencies, he has gone on to confirm that giving the new President a more prominent role does not require any changes to the Constitution.

This week he said, “Marie Louise Coleiro Preca will take on a leadership role but will not have any executive powers,” adding that the new president will be expected to champion policies but not pilot them.

However, despite the good intentions government might have, extending the President’s powers could require Constitutional changes, given that it clearly says, “the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet” except in exceptional circumstances, such as extending Parliament’s term in case of war.

Article 85 of the Constitution stipulates that the President shall only act “in accordance with his own deliberate judgment” in the dissolution of Parliament and the appointment of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition.

MaltaToday understands that Coleiro Preca, who was initially reluctant to accept the nomination, accepted on condition that she would remain heavily involved in the social field.

However questions sent to the Office of the Prime Minister on whether Coleiro Preca accepted the nomination on certain conditions remained unanswered.

But when speaking to MaltaToday last week, Coleiro Preca said, “the constitution only defines the President’s competences very vaguely, so it’s not an issue of whether the Head of State is restricted from doing something or not”.

She added that the new presidency would have a “more active and effective role,” as envisaged by the Labour Party’s electoral programme. 

Extending the powers of the President could only be made possible by changing the Constitution or by changing individual laws such as the ones regulating the various commissions, which Muscat said would fall under the President’s responsibility.

Yet, speaking to this newspaper, Franco Debono, who has been entrusted with coordinating Constitutional reform, agreed that extending the President’s legislative powers would require Constitutional changes.

“We however need to look at these development in the wider context of Constitutional reform,” he said, adding that there was widespread agreement that the President’s functions should be enhanced.

Debono has long championed changes to the President’s functions and the way the President is elected. He said that the President of the Republic should not only act as a ceremonial Head of State, but also take an active role in the political sphere.

Pointing out that the Constitution already states that “executive authority of Malta is vested in the President,” Debono reiterated that the Constitution should clearly define the President’s role.

Stressing that the President is the “guardian of the Constitution,” the former MP said “I’m not arguing that the President should get involved in partisan politics, but the President should definitely be more present in the political sphere in respect of the Constitution.”

Hinting that the Constitutional reform process will commence in the coming months, Debono said that the Constitution should be reformed on two counts; updating the document to reflect today’s realities and create an autochthonous Constitution.

“The time has come to have a Constitution that stems from the people and not one which is given to the people. This would allow us to have a home grown Constitution and divest ourselves from our Colonial past,” Debono said.