Tag Archives: President Abela

Malta – New President to expand the functions of the office

On April 4th, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, the Social Solidarity Minister in the Labour government led by PM Muscat, was sworn in as Malta’s ninth President. The Parliament unanimously confirmed PM Muscat’s choice of Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca as next head of state on April 1st. She succeeds President Abela, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, who has increased the visibility of the office by calling for a constitutional reform aimed at strengthening the political autonomy of the presidency.

Malta’s head of state is appointed for a five-year term by the parliament at the proposal of the prime minister. The choice of presidents reflects a wide consensus of political forces, as proven by the parliament’s unanimous appointment of the last two presidents. Moreover, President Abela’s nomination by the Nationalist Party in 2009 was meant to strengthen the idea that the president inspires national unity. However, the Labour Party did not reciprocate in 2014, when PM Muscat did not give in to pressures from the opposition to nominate as head of state a member of the Nationalist Party.

Maltese presidents have few real powers. Although the executive authority is vested in the president (art. 78), she is bound to act only on the prime minister’s advice. The position is therefore rather ceremonial.

For example, the president’s appointment powers to constitutional bodies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Superior Courts, and the Broadcasting Authority, can only be exercised in accordance with the prime minister’s advice. The president lacks veto powers and must sign into law any bill she is presented with without delay (art. 72).

President Abela has particularly insisted on the need to grant the head of state the power to require the re-examination of parliamentary acts once before signing them into laws. He argued that presidents should be allowed to present their own views on legislation and solicit changes. Currently, the only alternative presidents can resort to if they have reservations about the legislation they are presented with is to step down from office. The end of President Abela’s term was marked by an incident of this kind, as he appeared unwilling to sign the Civil Union Bill. There were reports that the parliament put the bill on hold until President Coleiro Praca took office, as she had made it clear she would sign the bill into law.

If President Abela’s appointment from the opposite side of the political spectrum was an experiment in 2009, Coleiro Preca’s appointment in 2014 is also seen as an experiment due to the increase in the responsibilities attached to the presidential office. PM Muscat revealed that Coleiro Preca was initially reluctant to give up the Family and Social Solidarity ministry for the presidential nomination. She accepted the post after the prime minister confirmed that the president will be heavily involved in the social field. She will be in charge of the national strategy against poverty and will head several commissions in the social area. The financial and personnel resources allocated to the office will also be increased to assure the effectiveness of her work.

The overlap between the president’s new functions and the social solidarity ministry has raised concerns that this portfolio was in fact being elevated to the level of the presidency. There were also questions about the legality of extending the president’s powers without changing the constitution. PM Muscat argued that giving the president a more active and prominent role was not accompanied by an increase in the executive powers of the office. Therefore, the president’s overview of nationwide social policies was not expected to exceed her constitutional powers.

A constitutional reform process is expected to begin in Malta in the coming months. In this context, it will be interesting to see to what extent the new functions granted to President Coleiro Preca and former President Abela’s calls to increase the autonomy of the presidential office and its independence from the executive will contribute to a redefinition of the president’s role in the constitution. 

Malta –President Abela’s calls for the reform of the presidential office

Maltese presidents are elected and dismissed by the parliament and most of their constitutional prerogatives are subject to the prime minister’s prior approval. However, George Abela, the incumbent president, has maintained a high public profile throughout his time in office due to his repeated calls for constitutional reform.

A former deputy leader of the Labour Party, George Abela was nominated to the presidential office by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of the Nationalist Party, which had won the 2008 general election. George Abela is the first Maltese president who was nominated to this position by the opposing political party and was elected almost unanimously by the parliament as head of state in April 2009.

The circumstances of his election explain why President Abela supports the idea that the choice of presidents must be reached through a wide consensus of all political forces. However, the president has put forward a much more extensive reform of the presidential office in order to strengthen its autonomous role with regard to the parliament and the government (see for example the Republic Day speech delivered by President Abela on 15 December 2013 and the extensive interview he subsequently gave to The Malta Independent).

The reform suggestions put forward by George Abela encompass the procedures for the president’s selection and dismissal and the actual prerogatives of this institution. Apart from underlining the necessity of selecting the president through consensus, George Abela argues that the president’s autonomous role can only be protected if the House of Representatives cannot remove the head of state by simple majority, as the Constitution currently stipulates (art. 48). As far the range of presidential powers is concerned, George Abela has indicated three main changes that would allow the president to act without the prime minister’s advice.

First, the president should be allowed to require the re-examination of parliamentary acts once before signing them into laws and present his own views on the necessary changes. At the moment, the Constitution requires the president to “assent without delay” to the bills presented by the House of Representatives (art. 72).

Second, President Abela argues that the head of state should have a say over the appointments made to constitutional bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority and the Courts, which are currently under the prime minister’s control. The public office-holders’ selection by an institution that is above party politics would prevent their exclusive accountability to politicians.

The third suggestion concerns the president’s ability to address the parliament. President Abela contrasts the personal speech delivered by the head of state on Republic Day with the “Speech from the Throne” read by the president at the inauguration of the legislature, which is written by the government. He recommends that this practice be discontinued so that the president can present the parliament his own view on the matters of the day.

Apart from advocating the need for constitutional reform in public speeches, President Abela has also hosted debates on this theme. In 2011 he set up the “President’s Forum”, an annual meeting where experts meet to discuss topics of national interest under the president’s patronage, and the 2012 and 2013 Forums were explicitly focused on constitutional reform.

President Abela’s term is nearing its end and the parliament is due to elect a new president on 4 April 2014.  Although it is not yet known whether the incumbent Labour government will stick to the precedent of nominating a president from the opposition and the major political parties have different views on the actual road to constitutional reform, there now seems to be growing consensus regarding its necessity.