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.