A mechanism whereby the President would still be elected by a simple majority in case the nominated candidate fails to obtain two-thirds of the MPs’ support after two rounds of voting is fuelling disagreement between government and opposition. Any changes will only go through if the two sides agree.
The split emerged on Monday morning when parliament started debating a Bill aimed to reform the appointment mechanism of Malta’s Head of State. This is in line with the recommendations made by the group of rule of law experts of the Council of Europe, known as the Venice Commission.
A total of 10 Bills have been tabled in line with these recommendations aimed to decentralise powers and strengthen autonomous institutions like the Ombudsman, National Audit Office, and the appointment of members of the judiciary. However, only four of these Bills have been published so far.
Zammit Lewis defends ‘deadlock mechanism’
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, who moved the Bill, staunchly defended the so-called “deadlock mechanism” saying it was necessary and in line with other democracies like Italy.
The justice minister said this was the most important Bill since the establishment of the republic and the 1987 constitutional amendments which guaranteed that the party obtaining most votes would be guaranteed the right to govern.
Under this proposal, if there is no agreement after two rounds of votes – which must be held at least seven days apart – the hurdle would be lowered to a simple majority.
Zammit Lewis said that concerns that government was intent use the “deadlock mechanism” to barge through its preferred candidate was “absurd”.
“This is the same system in use in Italy which has worked well over the years,” he pointed out.
He added that the seven-day period between the first and the second vote would allow for further talks and the possibility to nominate a different person.
Nonetheless, this is an “exceptional breakthrough” as government would be losing some of its prerogative in the appointment of the Head of State, Zammit Lewis said.
He insisted the anti-deadlock mechanism would still be better than the current system, as the president will no longer be appointed by a resolution requiring a relative majority of the MPs present in the sitting, but the absolute support of all MPs in that legislature. In this case this hurdle would be 34 out of the 67 MPs.
Zammit Lewis noted that a decade ago former PN MP Franco Debono had floated most of these proposals but were not taken on board.
Opposition floats Acting President proposal
PN MP Chris said that when legislating on such important matters had to cater for the worst-case scenario in which the government of the day would try to exploit this deadlock mechanism.
He noted that the two-thirds mechanism had been proposed by the PN and it was only recently that government dropped its objection due to the pressure from the Venice Commission.
“While the two-thirds majority proposal is a step forward, the opposition is disagreeing with the deadlock proviso and will not support the Bill,” he remarked.
“The opposition could never agree to grant further powers to the president, such as having the final say on the appointment of the members of the judiciary as long as there would still be the possibility that the Head of State could be appointed by a simple majority,” he added.
Said proposed to have an acting president, also chosen by a two-thirds majority who would take over in case of a deadlock until an agreement on the next president would be found.
“In this way we would have ensured that whoever is elected president will always have a two-thirds parliamentary majority,” Said insisted.
He noted the PN was in favour of having a Council of State, and that the chairpersons of constitutional bodies – The Broadcasting Authority, Electoral Commission, Employment Commission, and the Public Service Commission would be appointed by the president. To date these are the prime minister’s prerogative, Said pointed out.
He said that the PN was in favour of a system that government and opposition would each nominate half of the members and the chairpersons by a two-thirds majority, or else leave the decision for the president’s discretion.
Said called for more consultation from the government and for the publication of the six other Bills implementing the Venice Commission proposals.
What are the President’s reserved powers at present?
Zammit Lewis said under the exiting constitution there were seven instances where the president had executive powers whereby, he would not follow anybody’s advice (reserved powers).
These deal with the dissolution of the House of Representatives, when a prime minister loses a vote of confidence, the appointment of an acting prime minister and the opposition leader.
Referring to the current situation within the Nationalist Party, he expressed hope that George Vella would be taking his decision soon and on nobody else's advice. He said it would have been better if such an issue would have been resolved within the party’s structures.
Zammit Lewis said that other reserved powers of the president are the right to veto decisions on recruitment of his staff, the removal of the auditor general and the deputy, and the appointment of a substitute member within the Commission for the Administration of Justice. The President is also empowered under the Ombudsman Act, whereby the President may appoint a substitute in case the ombudsman is unable to carry out an investigation.
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