Landmark constitutional amendments on the method of appointment of the president and the powers the head of state will exercise, were unanimously approved by parliament on Wednesday, before the House rose for the summer recess.

63 out of the 67MPs present voted in favour. Four Opposition MPs were not in the chamber when the votes were taken.

The reforms involving the president are the most significant since Malta became a republic in 1974.

They provide that the president will henceforth be appointed by a two thirds parliamentary majority, instead of a simple majority, as was the case to date.

The changes also remove the government’s discretion in the appointment of the members of the judiciary. Instead, magistrates and judges will be appointed by the president on the advice of the Judicial Appointments Committee. 

Agreement on the reforms between the government and the opposition was reached after the government ditched a controversial proposal to introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism in the new process for the appointment of the president.

The breakthrough was made during talks held on Tuesday evening.

There might be those who will criticise the government for having made too many concessions, but I firmly believe this is the way forward to strengthen the rule of law.- Edward Zammit Lewis

Under the proposed anti-deadlock mechanism, when the nominee for president or any other post requiring a two-thirds parliamentary majority twice failed to get that level of support, the threshold would have been lowered to an absolute majority of the 67MPs in the House in the third round of voting.

This fallback position was also proposed for the nomination of the Ombudsman, the head of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption and the Chief Justice.

The Opposition objected, arguing that such an arrangement would defeat the whole purpose of the reforms since such sensitive positions could end up being occupied by people who did not enjoy the confidence of the opposition.

The Justice Minister on Wednesday confirmed in parliament that an agreement had been reached so that in case of disagreement on a nomination, the incumbent would remain in office until government and Opposition agreed on a successor.

Edward Zammit Lewis said that this breakthrough was the result of the political will of Prime Minister Robert Abela, Opposition leader Adrian Delia and Opposition MP Chris Said who were involved in the talks.

 “We reached this point as all those involve cooperated,” he remarked.

“There might be those who will criticise the government for having made too many concessions, but I firmly believe this is the way forward to strengthen the rule of law,” Zammit Lewis told Parliament.

On his part Said remarked that this amendment reflected the Opposition’s stance which feared that the anti-deadlock mechanism would be a step backward.

Other constitutional reforms 

Apart from the appointment of the president, magistrates and judges, the constitutional reforms also provide for the election of the Chief Justice with a two-thirds parliamentary majority. This mechanism will also apply for the chairman of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption.

Another major reform is the introduction of the right to judicial review for the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Standards and the Permanent Commission Against Corruption. They will have the right to challenge the Attorney General should he decide not to prosecute whenever they refer cases of suspected corrupt practices.  

The reforms are part of a package of recommendations made by the group of experts on the rule of law from the Council of Europe, known as the Venice Commission.

A further four Bills which will reduce the prime minister’s discretion in the appointment of permanent secretaries and heads of regulatory bodies and regulate positions of trust will be debated when the House reconvenes on Monday, October 5.

President welcomes agreement on reforms

The Office of the President in a statement welcomed the unanimous agreement on the constitutional reforms and congratulated all those involved in the talks.

The agreement showed, yet again, how debate around a table was the best way forward, the Office said. This was the democratic way how government and opposition could work together to achieve results for the country. 

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