Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia cannot be stripped of his position as leader of the opposition, President George Vella has said.
In a lengthy statement on Monday afternoon, Vella said that after meeting the opposition parliamentary group, he had established that Delia no longer enjoyed their support.
But, he said that in his judgement, Delia could not be removed as leader of the opposition because the role should be held by the leader of the largest party in opposition to the government, which is the Nationalist Party.
The president said he had established that 16 opposition MPs - the majority of the 28-strong PN parliamentary group - declared they no longer trust Delia. He said 11 MPs said they still had confidence in him. One MP, believed to be Stephen Spiteri, abstained.
President George Vella's statement comes almost a week after Delia lost a vote of confidence among his parliamentary group.
Why has the president made this decision?
Vella said if Delia were stripped of the position, the question over who should take his place would be immediately raised.
The constitution, he said, outlined that there has to be a leader of the opposition at all times.
“This means that this constitutional office cannot be left empty; at least not for a long time."
Vella says it is clear that the leader of the opposition must be the leader of a political party that has the largest numerical opposition to the government. This would rule out Nationalist MP Therese Comodini Cachia, the politician that dissident opposition MPs had nominated.
“The dilemma is between following the letter of the constitution and creating a situation that goes against the constitution, or to consider the situation as a special one and adopting special measures,” the statement reads.
What happens next?
Vella goes on to say that “for now” discussion over who ought to be appointed Opposition leader should stop.
That includes the nomination of Therese Comidini Cachia as opposition leader. However he said his decision should "not stifle further healthy discussion on what measures can be taken to correct this situation".
The PN's Executive Committee is due to meet on Tuesday evening.
Vella describes the situation over the past few days as “unprecedented”.
He says that the “principle of necessity” dictates that parliamentary functions must go on unhindered. This justifies, in his opinion, the departure from the written word of the constitution.
“I am conscious of and feel the obligation and responsibility to ensure stability and continuity in the country,” the statement ends.
What has the reaction been?
In a statement broadcast live on Facebook, Delia said the president's decision should be respected by everyone who believes in rule of law and the constitution.
But the group of MPs and MEPs who voted against Delia hit out against the president's decision.
"This decision breaches the constitution and this is confirmed by a number of constitutional experts who spoke publicly," they said.
One of Delia's supporters, PN Deputy Leader Robert Arrigo, said the president’s decision was “logical”. He said three years had been wasted because of infighting. If Delia loses the next election, he will have to go, he said.
However, independent MP Marlene Farrugia, who backed the majority Nationalist MPs said the president had made a decision that would “ensure the opposition remains ineffective”.