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Struggles of Democracy: The Presidential Role

The citizens of Malta will be celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary of being a republic in less than two years. Throughout this period, it has displayed impressive feats in the realms of democratization and the exercise of civil liberties. Some of the most memorable include the farewell to the last British ships in 1979, the accession to the EU in 2004 and the adoption of a common European currency in 2008, as well as ranking first in terms of LGBTIQ+ rights since 2015. For all that, it has witnessed horrific political episodes just the same: the political violence in the ‘80s, including the murders of Karen Grech, Raymond Caruana and, still fresh in our minds, Daphne Caruana Galizia; the infamous Panama Papers; and the civil disobedience that culminated in protests in the capital city between 2019 and 2020, amongst others.

Contemporary years have not been kind when it comes to Malta’s democratic performance. Evidence can be observed vis-à-vis the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. The index takes into account the electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Countries are classified as a ‘full democracy’ if they score between 8 and 10, the latter being the max value possible, ‘flawed democracy’ lying in the 6 to 8 region, ‘hybrid regime’ which is reserved for transitioning countries scoring between 4 to 6, and ‘authoritarian regime’ for anything lower than that. With a score of 8.39, 2006 Malta ranked 15th in the world, an enviable accomplishment. A decade and a half later and the picture is not so relieving anymore. As of 2021, Malta ranks 33rd with the worst performance to date, scoring 7.57. Unsurprisingly, this disappointing evolution stems from political participation and functioning of government.

The constitutional reform of 1974 transformed the country from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. Effectively, the Head of State would no longer be the late Queen Elizabeth II, the position instead being occupied by the President of the Republic. Assuming no extraordinary circumstances arise, His Excellency Dr. George Vella shall be finishing his term in office, as the tenth president, in April of 2024. The presidency of the country has always been a fascinating institution in the author’s eyes, one which might represent a solution to the waning quality of democracy in Malta. To what extent does the population know of the President’s role? Can we expect and demand changes to come to it?

Basic Facts and Historic Overview

As already implied, the 4 of April 2024 will be the inauguration date of the eleventh President of the Republic of Malta. The chosen day is not incidental and has been April 4th since the swearing in of Vincent Tabone in 1989. If one crunches the numbers well, it is apparent that the maximum term in such an office is five years. Barring two Acting Presidents and Sir Anthony Mamo, the first President, all occupants of the title have lasted the full term. These outliers should not be surprising. Acting Presidents are, after all, caretakers of the post until an official designation is made, and Sir Anthony Mamo was privileged with this role after serving as the last Governor-General of the State of Malta whilst the country was transitioning into a fully-fledged republic.

Referring to the constitution itself, a resolution supported by two-thirds of the Maltese Parliament is required for the award of the role of President within the country. One might wonder as to why the opposition at any time supports the suggested candidate, given that they are almost always politically aligned with the ruling government. This is a fair inquiry since any government has never had an absolute majority in parliament, equivalent to two-thirds or more of the seats. The explanation is that the law does not prevent that person from becoming President if the resolution fails to obtain the needed votes, simply stating that they will occupy the role until the resolution passes.

It's also of interest that the individual who would become President was always a sympathiser of the ruling side of the House, with the notable exception of George Abela, where a Nationalist Government agreed to elect a Labour politician. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the reigning government at the time had already virtually lost its majority support and it would sooner collapse before being able to complete the full legislative period.

Guardian or Wastrel?

At face value, the Constitution of Malta suggests heightened significance of the country’s Head of State. Indeed, the term ‘President’ is found 145 times within the 90-page document. Yet, upon closer inspection, the true power that lies within the seat is, at most, diminutive. For instance, although being quoted as his/her responsibility, the appointment of important institutional positions such as the Ombudsman and State Advocate are only performed with the go-ahead of some other institution, including the Prime Minister, or a parliamentary vote. One understands the need for decentralisation of power, albeit some degree of independent conscience and judgement should be afforded.

To be fair, there are certain decisions which are autonomously taken by the President, as far as written law is concerned. Free, deliberate judgement may be exercised for functions concerning the dissolution of parliament, appointment and removal of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, and the appointment of another person to take on the Prime Minister’s functions when the latter is absent. Furthermore, the ability to grant a Presidential Pardon was key in unmasking the alleged mastermind, in what one hopes to be a step forward towards obtaining closure for the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, both for the victim’s families, and the tainted local political era.

Perhaps, some might associate Malta’s Presidency with the likes of a charitable organization. Often times their influence and resources make them protagonists in altruistic events such as ‘L-Istrina’ and periodic fun runs. Even entire foundations have been created, notably ‘The Malta Trust Foundation’ founded in 2015 by Her Excellency President Emeritus Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. In isolation, these are very noble causes without a shadow of a doubt. Be that as it may, the lack of participation in the decision-making process in the country feels like a missed opportunity for good governance.

Through a recent podcast conducted by Jon Mallia, ex-Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has confirmed what is included within the constitution: that despite it carrying practically no power, the presidency is the most prominent role in the country, a paradox, no doubt. As primary school children, the most common attribute allocated to this person is the ‘Guardian of the Constitution’ (at least during my time long gone). How one is able to fulfil such a task, so sworn in the official oath, without tools at their disposal is perplexing, to say the least.

A look at the latest national events taking place is proof enough of this realization. Without going into the merit of the righteousness, or otherwise, of the law; President George Vella will only have two options as soon as the law passes the third hearing in parliament, to sign it “without delay” thereby betraying his own moral compass, or to resign for failing to carry out his duties under the constitution. This situation occurred not-so-long ago through his immediate predecessor and is very much interconnected with the incident back in June 2018. President Coleiro Preca at the time would go on to sign the IVF law “solely out of respect and loyalty” to the democratic process. Just a few months ago, a questionable sequence of events occurred. An amendment to the IVF law would have its signature delayed by three weeks before being signed by Acting President Bezzina as soon as Vella went abroad. Was this truly just of them? Is it just of the system to treat the role as a rubber stamp and a celebrity, and nothing more?

A New Dawn?

Even if George Abela’s elevation to office was a revolutionary act, given the parties’ dark history together, the fact that a politician is chosen did not change and would not change for the two subsequent successors. Now, let’s stop and think for a moment. Politicians are quite suitable because of their experiences in political processes and diplomatic relationships, both internally and internationally. These characteristics undeniably make them attractive candidates to assist a government, especially after accession into the EU. Moreover, foreign country relations are increasingly unavoidable in an exponentially globalized world.

Surely though, there exist equally, if not better, abled individuals outside the sphere of politicians. Article 48(2) of the constitution explains that the eligibility conditions to occupying the presidential role include that one must be a Citizen of Malta, must not hold or have held office of Chief Justice or other Judge of the Superior Courts, and must not have been a member of the Public Service Commission, the Broadcasting Authority, or the Employment Commission in the last three years. That leaves armadas upon armadas of eligible individuals. Evidently, certain traits make one more likely to catch the eye of those selecting. One does not expect a young, inexperienced student to be able to handle such responsibilities, after all.

This habit would encounter a turnaround with the latest bestowment of Prof. Frank Bezzina as acting president, academic and pro-rector of the University of Malta. This is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, we can expect that appointments of the official President of Malta could start to stem from non-politicians going forward.

Admittedly, whilst a good proportion of the population was delighted with this change, some were disappointed that it did not go far enough. The Malta Women’s Lobby pointed out that this new appointment meant that it would replace the previous Minister for Education and Employment, Dolores Cristina who held the role before. Their argument is that this interferes with the equality of representation with respect to both sexes that the nation is aiming to achieve.

Malta has had two previous female presidents, the deceased Agatha Barbara, and the more familiar Marie Louise Colerio Preca. Indubitably, they championed through the challenges facing the nation during their respective times. Barbara oversaw major constitutional reforms from the very start of her tenure till the very end and maintained Malta’s status of neutrality when the unsettling pressures of the cold war could still be felt. Colerio Preca’s term might be associated more with the empathy displayed towards marginalized groups such as the wave of migrants in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, still ongoing one might add. In front of this proof, there can be no argument that women are any less able to excel in political activities, intrinsically speaking.

It almost feels demeriting that one is appointed to this prestigious role simply because of their gender identity. Should it not be the capabilities, skills, dedication, and values that makes one stand out amongst others? If we agree that merit is based on what one knows rather than who one knows, then it should be equally applicable that what one knows is a more advantageous trait than what one is, regardless of race, gender, orientation, and any other classification imaginable.

The Forked Path

The argument is brought back full circle. The president’s scope should be wider than it currently stands, which can only be true if executive power is justly vested in this neutral character. What more proof is required to convince us that the democratic values on these islands are under attack than what is already revealed in the commemorative plaque by the steps of university’s quadrangle?

Democratic backsliding is not only confined to the Maltese state. Experts are especially concerned with the performance of Hungary and Poland, who were once amongst the most vocal adversaries to communism in the Eastern Bloc during the cold war. The former is closely threading on the threshold of spiralling downwards. Curiously enough, its 2006 score matches almost perfectly with Malta’s current score. Let it be known that the country we love is not immune to authoritarian tendencies.

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