The House of Representatives yesterday elected Eddie Fenech Adami as President at the end of a bitter debate between Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Opposition Leader Alfred Sant.

The prime minister underlined Dr Fenech Adami's qualities and said his choice to serve as President was inevitable as Malta joined the European Union. Dr Fenech Adami, he said, had unequalled experience, qualifications, values and exposure. He was confident that five years on, time would show that the choice was right and Dr Fenech Adami would prove to be a President who united the people behind him.

Dr Sant said Dr Fenech Adami, as former prime minister and party leader, was a divisive element. His nomination for the Presidency was shameful and humiliating to a large section of the people. Dr Sant went over Dr Fenech Adami's political record, saying evil political campaigns had been conducted when he was party leader, he had been responsible for injustices and he had even negotiated with criminals when Joseph Fenech (Zeppi l-Hafi) was granted three Presidential pardons. Dr Sant said the Labour Party would not, however, fall into any trap and would continue to respect the Office of President.

The motion for the appointment of Dr Fenech Adami was approved after a division, with 33 government votes in favour and 29 opposition votes against.

At the opening of the debate, Dr Gonzi said Dr Fenech Adami was the most qualified and suitable person to be appointed as President of Malta.

Although the government had considered other people who could be appointed for the office, it was inevitable that Dr Fenech Adami was the most suited, given his experience and the service he had given to date to the country.

Although the Office of President was viewed as largely ceremonial, the President had a limited but important executive function that came into play when the country was going through special and particular circumstances.

The country had gone through such exceptional circumstances, and could yet go through them again. This gave the Presidency a crucial role in the country's democratic development and it was crucial that the President was a person who had the experience to take the right decisions in the national interest.

It was also an office that demanded that the holder project the country in the best possible light, both locally and overseas. The incumbent had to be sensitive to the wishes and aspirations of the people and assimilate with them. It called for honesty, integrity and all that was traditionally Maltese, especially in terms of solidarity. He must lay aside his personal interests and be ready to serve in every possible way.

Dr Gonzi said the appointment of the President had come at a very particular time when Malta was just a few weeks away from becoming a member of the EU. This situation could not be overlooked even in the selection of a new President.

Pointing out the reasons for the government's nomination, Dr Gonzi said Dr Fenech Adami had been a member of parliament for 35 years and was the author of important developments in the country's history, developments which were beyond controversy. He had been an MP, leader of the opposition and head of government: a range of experience that was both unique and exceptional.

All this made him a natural choice to head the state in the delicate moments that the country might find itself in.

There was no doubt that Dr Fenech Adami was well-known both in Malta and overseas, especially in the EU. His leading role in the enlargement of the EU had been recognised in the highest circles; indeed nobody else had his qualities.

This did not mean that only Dr Fenech Adami could be President of Malta. The selection exercise had been going on for some time, with efforts having been made to identify people who did not necessarily hail from the political camp. But the present circumstances pointed to only one logical conclusion: Eddie Fenech Adami was the best choice.

Dr Gonzi said the consultation process had also been affected by the ongoing changes in the Nationalist Party and the government. As prime minister he had had only a short time in which to carry out his consultations.

The opposition had suggested three persons who it felt could serve as President. Another name apart from those mentioned by the opposition had also been considered, but the cabinet had concluded that the best choice was Dr Fenech Adami. Indeed, it had been found that two of the persons proposed by the opposition were constitutionally barred from serving as President.

Dr Gonzi observed that there were those who argued that Dr Fenech Adami was not a person who united the country. But the country had already gone through repeated experiences where politicians who were chosen to serve as President had done so in the best manner, putting themselves above politics.

This did not mean that persons who were not politicians could not be nominated for the Office, but in the end one had to choose the best person for the job at that particular moment.

Opposition leader Alfred Sant said MPs used the House to voice the interests and aspirations of the people they represented, giving expression and meaning to their genuine differences.

This was a democratic country, where voice was given to all interests, and the House then moved ahead according to the people's democratic decision.

But there came moments where one had a duty to give expression to what united the country. It was especially the prime minister's duty to do his utmost so that national unity would overcome differences of opinion. The appointment of the President was one such moment.

The President was the symbol of the state and he would have expected Dr Gonzi, in his first important decision after becoming prime minister, to present a unifying motion at such a moment rather than one which divided the country more than ever before.

It was useless to argue whether the President should come from the political camp or not. What was essential at this point was for the prime minister to provide an option which would lead to unity.

Dr Sant said he had believed Dr Gonzi when he said 'judge me not on what I say but on what I do'. But Dr Gonzi had failed in his first act. There very rarely had been people who failed so quickly. The people viewed this to be a divisive decision, irrespective of their political beliefs.

For one could not frame everything into the logic used by one side of the House. There was not just one side in the country. One had to see how both sides viewed the situation, and proposals should not have been moved hastily.

The decision taken by the government was arbitrary and divisive and Dr Fenech Adami's nomination was humiliating to a large section of the people.

Referring to Dr Gonzi's claim that there had been very little time for consultations on the nomination, Dr Sant said the people were not fools, and one could see how matters were worked out to fit a timetable. Had the government really wanted time for consultation and agreement, it could have appointed an acting President for a short while.

The position now was that the person who had just given up power would maintain power. There was a clique that wanted to hold on to power at all costs.

Referring to the three people nominated by the opposition, Dr Sant said he would not say who these people were as they had not been consulted. It was not fair or prudent to mention them. Had there been agreement on one of them between the two sides, the particular person would have been consulted. But all three were persons of stature who could hold the Presidency. The opposition would not have proposed them otherwise.

Dr Sant said it was true that politicians from the Labour fold had also served as Presidents, but there was a distinct difference between a senior figure and a party leader. With his 'good and less good qualities' Dr Fenech Adami had led the Nationalist Party for 27 years, a position that necessarily polarised opinions and demonised the leaders.

Deep down, the texture of Maltese society was tribalised into appreciation for one's own part and disdain of the other. This held true for both sides of the political divide. Was it possible and plausible that Dr Gonzi had not thought of these points?

So much for Dr Gonzi wanting to be judged by what he did, rather than what he said.

Dr Fenech Adami had never kept back in his polarisation of the political spectrum since the 1970s.

Dr Sant mentioned efforts in the early 1980s for a former leader of the Labour Party to be nominated for President of Malta. This had occurred in the background of possible changes in the role of the Presidency and with the proviso that the person selected would need a majority of two-thirds of the House.

Dr Fenech Adami had been prime minister for years, and there were still too many people who felt downtrodden by his policies. How could they now accept him to represent them as head of state? Evil campaigns had been conducted at the time when Dr Fenech Adami was party leader, and for which he was politically responsible. Dr Sant said he himself had borne the brunt of such campaigns.

Neither had people forgotten the way Dr Fenech Adami had once challenged Labourites as he was coming out of the law courts building in Valletta.

The idea of Dr Fenech Adami as a conciliatory figure was just a political bubble that had burst too many times. This could be borne out by all those, including people of great experience, who had been badly treated simply for having been willing to work with Labour.

How could such a nomination for the Presidency be considered without these reminiscences?

Dr Gonzi had presented the House with a eulogy on the political judgement of Dr Fenech Adami. It was humiliating to set aside the feelings of those who did not agree with him.

There had never been a prime minister who had waded into circumstances such as those surrounding Zeppi l-Hafi, where wiser politicians would have steered clear. He had decided to offer this criminal person a Presidential pardon, showing serious political misjudgment.

His modus operandi in the case had been vitiated all along, taking him so far as to castigate the jury when their verdict had not lived up to expectations.

Dr Sant said the opposition was against Dr Fenech Adami's nomination not for his personal or family qualities but for what he stood for in the country's political history.

If Dr Gonzi felt the country needed Dr Fenech Adami as President so that he could help Malta inside the EU, did this mean he did not have confidence in his new foreign minister? The President did not have executive powers. Or did the government already intend to give the new President diplomatic executive powers? This would entail a constitutional amendment of greater proportions than a simple motion, and one that the opposition would not accept lightly.

The opposition would vote against Dr Fenech Adami's nomination for the Presidency and call for a division with a sense of sadness. In his first speech to the House the new prime minister had come to propose such a divisive nomination. Why had the government not proposed others of its own ilk who had already been considered in past years?

Dr Sant said the opposition would be making an important distinction between the Presidency and the person occupying it. It would never come short of respecting and honouring the office. On the contrary, what the government was doing showed no respect to a great part of the people of Malta.

The reality was that of a clique that wanted to hang on to power at all costs and at all levels. The situation wherein half the people felt the government was theirs and the other half felt in exile was being perpetrated.

Dr Sant said he had personally tried to dispel these feelings when in office, and the party had paid a bitter political price for it. The Fenech Adami government succeeding his own had sent Malta back into politics of divisiveness.

What was happening was turning the clock of Maltese politics back by decades. But the government would not succeed in getting the Labour Party and its supporters to do anything they should not.

Making what he called his last appeal, Dr Sant called on the government to stop in its tracks on the nomination to the Presidency and discuss all the real possibilities. Short of this, the government would be stepping out on a policy of confrontation.

Winding up, Dr Gonzi said Dr Sant's speech had followed the same lines of what he had said on the nominations of Dr Censu Tabone, Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Prof. Guido de Marco. It seemed that the leader of the opposition, while appealing for the issue to be treated at national level, could only muster a speech that went counter to all this.

Dr Gonzi said both sides of the House had a duty to nominate the very best for the Presidency, without partisan blinkers. It was true that the opposition had submitted three nominees, two of whom were barred by the Constitution itself from holding the presidency or even being nominated for it.

In his consultations with Dr Charles Mangion he still had indicated yet another potential candidate, even though the Cabinet had already decided on its preference.

Interjecting, Dr Mangion said the person had been so fleetingly mentioned that nobody had really considered it.

Dr Gonzi said that in nominating Dr Fenech Adami he had cast no shadows on any of the other nominees. His only misgiving had been the relatively young age of one of them.

Dr Sant had mentioned manipulation and cliques, which Dr Gonzi denied. What had these to do with the exercise to select the best candidate to represent Malta?

On the suggestion that an acting President could have been nominated temporarily until agreement was reached, Dr Gonzi said this would have reduced the Presidency to a much lower level than it deserved.

Dr Fenech Adami was not really a divisive figure. Had Dr Sant forgotten that he had been the spearhead in removing political divisiveness in the country once and for all?

Indeed, Dr Sant had also made the charge of political cleansing when Prof. de Marco was nominated and similar comments at the time of Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici's nomination. Yet, as Presidents they had received the accolades of one and all, including the opposition.

Dr Gonzi said it had been vulgar of Dr Sant, even in this debate, to raise the Zeppi l-Hafi case.

The opposition was ridiculing itself with such comments. He categorically denied that Dr Fenech Adami's government had been one for just half the country, saying all Maltese had benefited from his efforts.

It was unfortunate that the Leader of the Opposition had chosen to drag the nomination of the President into partisan politics. Time would pass and the opposition would again be compelled to applaud Eddie Fenech Adami's tenure of the Presidency, just as it had done with previous incumbents, concluded Dr Gonzi.

The House is adjourned to Sunday morning when Dr Fenech Adami will be sworn in during a special sitting.

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