Role of the Maltese President – what’s the point of it?

Role of the Maltese President – what’s the point of it?

In copy-pasting the the role of the British Monarch, we lost the main point of the role of the Maltese President- a spunt opinion piece

This April, a respectable and most likely elderly politician will be selected to become Malta’s next head of state. It’s happened every five years since 1974, when our country became a republic. This person will live in a palace, and will roleplay as the top figure in Maltese politics – even if everyone knows that they are actually of very little consequence.

So what is the role of the President of the Republic meant to achieve, and what does it actually add to Maltese life?

In the Maltese parliamentary political system, the President is non-executive. He, or she (and it has mostly been a ‘he’) is meant to serve as an embodiment of the nation, someone for the whole population to rally around, a symbol rather than a political actor. If this sounds like a vague and high-flown concept, difficult to translate into real life, it’s because it is – it is a concept rooted in history, and not one that tries to solve any current or future political problems. 

The role of the Maltese President is basically a republican translation of that of a constitutional monarch. Our political system started out based on that of the UK, and indeed for the first ten years of Malta’s history as an independent country, the head of state was literally Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately, since we normally choose a retired or ageing politician to serve as President, it is pretty hard to achieve the role of unifying the nation after having had a long career in partisan politics. In copy-pasting the role of the Queen to our own context, we lost the main point of the role. 

Virtually all parliamentary republics do also have a President with mostly ceremonial roles, again a as a result of their history – this system mostly arose to replace monarchies in Europe and elsewhere.

A strange job description

The role of Maltese President, theoretically, comes with some powers. The Constitution says that he is the one who appoints ministers, decides when to call a general election, and so on – but in practice it is accepted by all that it is the Prime Minister who decides these things. The Constitution itself makes that clear. 

He also signs Acts of Parliament into law, a necessary step for them to come into effect.

But why? What purpose does it serve to keep up this fiction that the President’s signature has some sort of magical power? Once we realise that the role is meant to fill the empty space meant for a King or Queen, we can understand why it has been designed this way – but we’re now a mature enough country to move beyond this charade. 

And the absurdity of the President’s role has never been clearer. Recent years have seen Parliament agree on some laws that an elderly President found morally distasteful. When faced with the prospect of signing a law that goes against his conscience, the President has found a clever way out – simply going abroad, leaving an arbitrarily-chosen replacement to take the problem off his desk. 

What legitimacy does the replacement – known as the acting President – have? The way they are chosen is unclear, they appear to simply be a direct appointee of the Prime Minister (the Constitution seems to confirm this view). 

There could hardly be a clearer admission that the President adds nothing to the political process. After all, why should Parliament, elected by citizens, require anyone else’s rubber stamp in order to make laws? 

Go on, do something

But, some might argue, having a head of state is important in case of political emergencies. 

The political crisis of late 2019 – which ultimately led to the resignation of Joseph Muscat – proved that is not the case. Despite some law experts (fuelled by a fair dose of political motivation, to be fair) calling for President Vella to act to resolve the uncertainty of the time, he announced that the Constitution literally did not allow him to do so. Quoting the law, he declared his own powerlessness, proving in practice that the role of the head of state is that of an impotent bystander, even in times of political crisis.

So what is the use of it all? The President occupies some ceremonial functions, but do we really need them? These come at a pretty high price – the head of state is paid even more than the Prime Minister. And the true cost of this rather expensive ‘person of trust’ is in the maintenance of a staff that spans three separate palaces – in Valletta, San Anton, and Verdala.

Could we reinvent the role of the Maltese President?

Ok, but if we decide that the role of the President is not needed, what then? What do we replace it with?

The idea of having some political structure that lies above the government of the day is not a bad one. Indeed, in a Maltese political context where political power has typically been very centralised in the hands of a Prime Minister, it could be incredibly valuable to have a person or persons overseeing the political process. Certain responsibilities which necessitate the consensus of all Maltese people could well benefit from being entrusted to an institution that is separate from, and above, party politics. 

But no President can ever achieve that – he or she has always been simply another government appointee with no popular mandate or real legitimacy. Reforms introduced in 2020, and set to be put into practice for the first time this year, mean that a two-thirds majority in Parliament is now necessary to choose the head of state. Both parties will need to be involved in the decision – but there is no agreement yet in how to resolve the situation if no agreement is found. More likely than not, the Prime Minister of the day will continue to pick a President who he believes will solve some of his own political problems. 

Maybe the President could be directly elected by citizens, like in some other countries? This wouldn’t necessarily work either. Unlike in presidential republics such as the United States or France, our system means that President cannot really be directly elected. This would create a politically intolerable situation by which one individual could claim a direct mandate from the people, which would clash with Parliament’s claim to being the most sovereign and representative body. 

Why would the Prime Minister remain the country’s most important executive when a directly-elected superior – who might not necessarily agree with government policy – is hanging around? There are some countries in Europe which practice this, but the structural contradictions that it creates are not ideal.

We don’t need a President – we need some creativity

Potential solutions exist – they require not only constitutional change, but also a change of mindset. They require us to be imaginative, and to move beyond our time-honoured Maltese practice of copy-pasting bits of political systems from foreign countries, to instead come up with a model designed for our own specific context. Any proposals on how to do that, though, will have to be tackled another time.

But hey, the President does at least give out a few medals once a year on Republic Day. On the off chance that this article makes its way to the newly-restored corridors of the Grandmaster’s Palace, I suspect that there will not, unfortunately, be any medals on the way for this spunt writer.

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