If President George Vella decides to abdicate his duties again and travels overseas to dodge signing a law he disagrees with, he will, in the eyes of many, render himself unfit for the high office he occupies.
The constitution is very clear. Parliament can vote to remove a president from office on grounds of proven inability to perform his functions – “whether arising from infirmity of body or mind or any other cause”.
A president who expects to be allowed to pick and choose which laws to approve or wash his hands from is – going by the spirit if not the letter of the constitution – unfit to occupy that office.
It was only last July that Vella went abroad, so an acting president could be nominated and sign a law he disagreed with. He cannot expect to do it again.
As president, Vella cannot possibly feel comfortable forming part of parliament – as the constitution lays down – which enacts legislation unacceptable to him. He himself said so.
This is what he told Net News in May 2021: “I cannot stop the executive from deciding, that is up to parliament. But I do have the liberty, if I don’t agree with a bill, to resign and go home. I have no problem doing this.”
The issue last summer was an IVF law.
This time it is about amendments to the criminal code on the interruption of a pregnancy – abortion. Still, for the sake of the argument being made here, it could be any law.
Times of Malta has said it before and will repeat it: if the president has a problem with a law, citizens are justified to wonder whether it should form part of the statute book at all.
Vella may, of course, change his mind on the draft law which parliament has just voted through the second reading. Also, the government could well decide to introduce changes to the bill when it is discussed in detail in the committee stage.
However, as things stand now, all eyes are on the president because his word, and more so, his actions, carry a lot of weight.
The prevailing situation is such that he himself felt he should break with tradition and refer to the matter in his formal address on Republic Day.
The president wisely stressed that the democratic process should be allowed to take its course without any interference. Still, he expressed the hope that the “discussions in progress” will lead to a solution to address all the points being raised by the different quarters.
This could indicate that he himself has made his own suggestions to the government on how the wording of the bill can be modified.
Indeed, when asked whether he excluded going abroad again not to sign the new law, Vella replied he would not exclude anything as “we are speaking about suppositions at this stage”. He added: “We will speak when we have the final draft [of the amendment]... the process is moving forward... I hope there will be an agreement for everyone to be happy.”
The president is still hopeful a solution will be found.
But his declaration also shows he has not accepted the prime minister’s assurance about the real aim of the bill before parliament. And that is another reason why Vella cannot take the easy way out.
A president with reservations about the country’s laws is already bad enough. One who also harbours doubts about the prime minister’s credibility could trigger serious constitutional issues.
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