Proposed reform to President appointment method may fail amid objections by PN MPs

A constitutional amendment reforming the way the President is chosen may fail to pass after Opposition MPs emphasised their objections to an anti-deadlock mechanism which could potentially allow the government to force through its preferred candidate in the absence of parliamentary consensus.

The amendment is one of a series of reforms the government is seeking to push through ahead of Parliament’s summer recess, in response to concerns raised by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Since it seeks to amend the Constitution, the bill requires the backing of two-thirds of Parliament.

At present, the President can be appointed – and removed – via simple majority, though as Opposition MP Chris Said pointed out, the last three Presidents – George Abela, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and incumbent George Vella – received unanimous backing. Said also highlighted that Abela, the father of incumbent PM Robert Abela, remains the only opposition figure nominated by the government of the day to date.

Opposition ‘cannot approve’ anti-deadlock mechanism

Said maintained that the opposition could not but approve appointing the President by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. But he insisted that it could not approve of the amendment proposed because of its anti-deadlock mechanism: appointing the President via an absolute majority of MPs should the first two votes fail.

The proposed bill specifies that these votes must be at least 7 days apart from each other, but does not require the government to propose a new candidate, simply stating that they “may be nominated before the taking of a second vote.” Said remarked that a government acting in bad faith could still force through their preferred candidate, adding that this would be particularly objectionable since the other proposed reforms would grant additional powers to the President, giving the office an important role in keeping the government in check.

The Venice Commission’s response to the proposed reform shows that originally, the government would have foreseen resorting to the anti-deadlock mechanism after just one vote, but this was deemed insufficient.

Instead, Said explained, the opposition was proposing requiring a two-thirds majority for the position of President as well as that of Acting President, with the Acting President remaining in power until Parliament could agree on who gets to serve as Malta’s head of state.

Said is a prominent representative of the Nationalist MPs opposed to the leadership of Adrian Delia – he proposed the no confidence vote Delia failed last week – but his views were echoed by a PN MP believed to have voted in support of Delia, Carm Mifsud Bonnici. The son of former President Ugo Mifsud Bonnici said that the amendment “appeared to be good,” but argued that the real solution was to achieve political consensus.

Mifsud Bonnici also said that the anti-deadlock mechanism may tempt the government of the day to abuse the law, whilst insisting that he had faith in Parliament’s ability to agree on a suitable choice.

Zammit Lewis hails ‘exceptional breakthrough’

In his opening remarks, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said that it was difficult to imagine discussing bills of greater importance than the proposed amendment, stating that at present, the method through which a President was appointed was not intended to lead to the best choice, merely the one preferred by the Prime Minister of the day.

He said that whenever the principle of requiring a two-thirds majority for a public appointment was adopted, the experience proved to be a success. This assertion was later seized upon by PN MP Jason Azzopardi, who emphasised that his party’s call for using this mechanism for various public appointments – including the President – had been vindicated.

Zammit Lewis defended the anti-deadlock mechanism, noting that a similar method was in place in Italy. He also emphasised that even the anti-deadlock mechanism was better than the present method, since it required an absolute majority of MPs – as opposed to a simple majority.

“We have done an exceptional breakthrough, and we hope that the Opposition recognises this,” the minister said.

“I hope that the mechanism will never be used, but we need an effective anti-deadlock mechanism” he later insisted.