[ANALYSIS] What to do with Madame President: is Coleiro Preca planning a return to politics?

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s term as President ends in April 2019, two months before the European elections. Will the Labour firebrand return to active politics and at what cost for Joseph Muscat?

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca's term as President will soon come to an end
Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca's term as President will soon come to an end

Malta’s head of state has denied press reports that she is sending ‘diplomatic signals’ indicating a desire for a second term as President of Republic once her term expires in April 2019. And for the second time in four months, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca has excluded having any interest in becoming an MEP.

But it was Coleiro Preca who refused to exclude a return to politics once her term as President will be over.

“I have two years left as President, after that we will see,” she told Saviour Balzan on TVM’s Xtra in January 2017. It was only after that programme that she qualified her answer by saying she does not “contemplate a return to partisan politics”: in itself, a hint of having a prominent role in civil society.

Her subsequent denials of a seeking an MEP candidature in 2019 simply confirms how politically relevant Coleiro Preca has remained. At 59, she is simply too young to be relegated to the role of a withdrawn President emeritus.

But this post-presidential ambition represents a major dilemma for the head of government, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who in 2014 kicked the social policy minister upstairs to the presidency, in full knowledge of opinion polls showing her to be his most popular minister.

She took up the post reluctantly, and she left a vacuum in the ministry that was always a flagship for any centre-left government.

But by keeping the option of a political return open, Coleiro Preca perhaps fed the kind of speculation that could give her leverage over Muscat.

For unlike the past presidents who were well past their prime or reached their career’s apex upon being sent to San Anton, Coleiro Preca will be 60 at the end of her term.

Deprived of any institutional role, the outspoken Coleiro Preca may easily become a reference point for the orphaned left in the Labour orbit, where she retains popularity with Labour grassroots

And her stature has grown among voters, thanks to her non-partisan but outspoken declarations.

An ideological rift

Coleiro Preca knows a return to partisan politics would weaken her popular standing among middle-of-the-road voters, who rightly expect her to stay out of the fray.

It would not mean that she retires from the sphere of public debate. Some people criticise her for not speaking out sufficiently on the moral question facing Muscat’s administration. After all, Coleiro Preca herself raised the bar, through her incisive critique of the direction taken by the country in the past years.

On various occasions, particularly in her annual Republic Day speeches, she sent strong political messages on the environment, the rule of law and migration.

In 2016 she punched holes in the “best of times” narrative by listing the problems facing the country: “social exclusion, threats to quality of life as a result of unsustainable development, overcrowding in residential zones, the lack of public spaces, noise and traffic, and the lack of political honesty and truth in politics.”

She slammed the Government for wanting to deport failed asylum seekers, insisting that “morally we should not punish those who have spent years contributing to the prosperity of our country and being part of our society by sending them back rather than appreciating them.”

And in 2017 she expressed doubts on the full scale legalisation of prostitution which she wants decriminalised, expressing her concern that this could lead to more exploitation, thus carving a particular niche which appeals to both the left wing and the more socially conservative wings of her party. And although her reaction to Caruana Galizia’s death was subdued, she did make the crucial point that the rule of law “is the deterrent against autocracy and abuse of power”.

Strong in her constituency

Ultimately it’s not Coleiro Preca’s idealism but her strength at constituency level, which weighs heavily on Muscat’s choices.

She is mostly popular in the same strategic Qormi district where Robert Abela, the son of another former president, George Abela, is also making inroads.

As MP, Abela is a legal advisor to Joseph Muscat as well.

This rivalry was most evident when in court, George Abela testified during the Paqpaqli crash court case that his office always assumed responsibility for charity events organised under its aegis.

“At the end of the day I believed that responsibility fell squarely upon my shoulders.” That stab at Coleiro Preca was then ‘sweetened’ by a commentary from his son Robert, underlining the constitutionality of a second term for “a deserving” Coleiro Preca, perhaps to defuse the situation.

“If it is truly the wish of Her Excellency Coleiro Preca to continue to serve, she deserves to do so,” Abela wrote on Facebook.

There is a risk for Muscat to leave Coleiro Preca out in the cold after the expiry of her presidency.

Deprived of any institutional role, the outspoken Coleiro Preca may easily become a reference point for the orphaned left in the Labour orbit, where she retains popularity with Labour grassroots. In 2008 she lost a leadership bid (a disastrous outing that won her just 26 delegates’ votes) that saw Muscat take the party helm, but she remained a force to be reckoned with, one which today could still reignite a much-needed ideological debate inside Labour.

Would Muscat, who is himself seeking an exit into European politics after 2019, be ready to face a debate on the party’s direction at this moment in time?

Kicking her upstairs again

One possible option for Muscat could be to renew her term, an office where her outspokenness is limited by constitutional prudence.

Irrespectively of the need for constitutional change or not, Muscat would be unwise to proceed with such an unprecedented move without the consent of the Opposition.

No Maltese president has ever been reappointed to the office. Muscat could justify such a move by citing the need of continuity in talks on constitutional reform. But this further underlines the need for a consensus. While the Opposition risks sounding divisive if it blocks Coleiro Preca’s reappointment, Muscat could be accused of using the presidency to sort his own political problems.

A second term in the presidency may well keep Coleiro Preca outside the party’s internal debate. But reappointing her would deprive Muscat of the chance of reshuffling his Cabinet by kicking one of his senior ministers to the post, to inject new blood and remove rotten apples before the MEP elections.

But the only serving minister who fits the profile is Evarist Bartolo, and it remains doubtful whether Muscat can afford to lose one of his best performing ministers.

Another option which excludes a reshuffle would be appointing former minister George Vella or Louis Grech, who did not contest the last general election. Muscat may also think outside the box and appoint someone with a Nationalist background, a step which may further disorient the Opposition and boost his image as a unifier.

It would replicate a move by Lawrence Gonzi when he appointed Muscat’s leadership rival George Abela as President in 2009 – although the move ultimately neutralised any potential opposition Abela could present to Muscat.

The problem in this case is that it is difficult to find someone credible who fits the profile.

Send her on a plane to Brussels…

So what would happen if Coleiro Preca had to contest for MEP?

It would surely galvanise the Labour vote, probably ensure an even bigger victory for Muscat by renewing the party’s appeal to disgruntled Labourites, but it also risks undermining any prospect of Miriam Dalli emerging as Labour’s frontrunner in these elections.

And this may not bode well for her chances in the forthcoming leadership contest that will take place when Muscat vacates his post.

On balance Coleiro Preca’s candidature would increase Labour’s share of the vote. The main difficulty is that those elections are due two months after the expiry of the Presidency: an awkward situation of having a symbol of national unity entering the partisan fray in the space of a few weeks.

Muscat may also consider another symbolic role for Coleiro Preca, like that of presiding the constitutional convention, keeping her busy for years without having her enter the partisan fray.

A second term in the presidency may well keep Coleiro Preca outside the party’s internal debate. But reappointing her would deprive Muscat of the chance of reshuffling his Cabinet by kicking one of his senior ministers to the post, to inject new blood and remove rotten apples before the MEP election

Or he could let things take their natural course and ignore Coleiro Preca’s future ambitions. Would it put him on collision course with her?

Would it enrich internal debate in the party, or could it spell trouble for his plans for an orderly transition if he does step down before the next election?

Muscat himself may well realise the party needs an injection of debate and Coleiro Preca is best left to her devises.

If she does take a prominent role in Maltese civil society, she could bridge the gap between what is presently a largely middle-class and PN-leaning civil society and Labour-leaning working-class voters. It could be what she has in mind when speaking of a return to non-partisan politics. Would she ruin this opportunity by seeking another term at San Anton?

Can a President be reappointed?

Article 48 (3)(a) of the Constitution states that the office of President shall become vacant “on the expiration of five years from the date of the appointment to that office.”

Article 123 allows Constitutionally-appointed officials to be reappointed “where any person has vacated any office established by this Constitution including the office of Prime Minister or other Minister or Parliamentary Secretary, he may, if qualified, again be appointed, elected or otherwise selected to hold that office in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” But subsection (2) specifically states that this “shall not apply to the office of President.”

In 2002 former President Guido de Marco made it clear that Article 123 makes it clear “that the President’s office is not renewable”. But de Marco told the Sunday Times then that the clause does not require a two-thirds majority in Parliament for it to be changed or removed, but only a simple majority. “Therefore this is up to the majority to decide whether to retain Article 123 (b) or not.”

He also recalled the then Labour Opposition had asked for an amendment in the Constitution so that Censu Tabone’s term is extended.

“He started with a boycott from the Opposition. He ended his term with the Opposition asking for an amendment in the Constitution so that his term be extended.”

Prof. Kevin Aquilina, dean of the University of Malta’s faculty of laws, has interpreted the Constitution as excluding the reappointment of the President.

Labour MP Robert Abela has given a different interpretation. He contends that Article 123 applies to cases when the person vacates the post themselves, for example, when they resign.

And former MP Franco Debono says Article 123 of the Constitution does not require two-thirds of the House of Representatives to be changed, and therefore can be changed through a simple majority.

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