The Malta Independent 27 September 2023, Wednesday
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Could Mallia or Cristina be our new President?

Malta Independent Sunday, 17 November 2013, 11:30 Last update: about 10 years ago

The declaration made by Nationalist Party Leader Simon Busuttil - that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat should nominate a President from the Opposition camp – was a direct challenge bound to stir up a heated debate on who will replace George Abela as head of state.

On Thursday, in an interview on PBS current affairs talk show Dissett, Dr Busuttil said that the Nationalist Party had broken new ground when then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi chose to nominate a former Labour Party deputy leader as President of the Republic. He considers the experience as having been positive, and challenged the PM to follow suit by repeating it in reverse – that is, having a Nationalist or Nationalist-leaning President appointed by a Labour government.

Dr Busuttil went so far as to say that he already has a name in mind if and when he is consulted on the matter by Dr Muscat, but stopped short of revealing what that name is.

A week earlier on the same programme, Dr Muscat said that so far he is chuckling about the speculation there is about who will be the next President when Dr Abela’s term expires in April. But he is also keeping his cards close to his chest.

The list of names from which Dr Muscat will be choosing is limited, although it is apparently longer than it was the last time around.

The most natural selection for him would be Foreign Minister George Vella, seen in the Labour camp as a veteran politician who, most likely, would not be contesting the next election. Aged 71, Dr Vella is a candidate who fits the bill from the Labour point of view although, on the other side of the political fence, he is considered to be a controversial figure. Dr Vella was deputy leader to Alfred Sant at a time when Dr Abela was also deputy leader for party affairs. His jibes, sometimes strong if not insulting, at the Opposition could come back to haunt him.

Another solution could be Dr Muscat’s current deputy, Louis Grech, who is viewed more favourably by the PN side and is certainly a more moderate politician than Dr Vella. Aged 66, Mr Grech sacrificed his European Parliament seat at a moment’s notice in December last year when Dr Muscat needed to give his party a push after the PN had elected Simon Busuttil as deputy leader, and the presidential post would be a fitting reward for him.

There is also the possibility that Mr Grech would retain his post as deputy Prime Minister until the term in office for Tonio Borg as European Commissioner expires next year. With his experience in European affairs, Mr Grech would be a solid candidate to fill Dr Borg’s seat.

Either way – if Dr Vella or Mr Grech is nominated, and here the age factor is in their favour for such a post – Dr Muscat would have to replace them in his Cabinet. Their portfolio could be simply added on to that of existing ministries, but there could also be a mini reshuffle, which could involve a change to Dr Chris Cardona’s responsibilities (he is now Economy Minister) and the likely promotion to ministerial level of Edward Zammit Lewis.

One name that would surprise many – but which would be a bold move that is not unprecedented in Dr Muscat’s leadership – would be that of Home Affairs Minister Manwel Mallia who, at 63, also has age in his favour.

Last December, Dr Muscat had no qualms in forcing the resignation of Anglu Farrugia as Labour Party deputy leader after comments he made about a magistrate, although many see it as a reply to the PN’s appointment of Simon Busuttil as then deputy leader. With Dr Mallia being at the heart of the most embarrassing and controversial decisions in the first months of this legislature, it could be an opportunity for Dr Muscat to find a way out by nominating him as President. In the same way that he “got rid of” Dr Farrugia and later “made it up to him” by appointing him Speaker, the nomination of Dr Mallia as President would give the Labour government the chance of a new beginning in a sector – Home Affairs – that has so far been embroiled in disputes that have led to a loss in popularity for the party.

Dr Mallia, who came from a Nationalist background before joining Labour to win two seats in the first election he contested, knows that his appointment would not be welcomed by the Opposition. In Parliament on Friday he said that he “is not seen well” by the PN. And so if Dr Muscat wants to kill two birds with one stone – replace the Home Affairs Minister and annoy the Opposition – this would be an ideal move.

Another member of the Labour Cabinet who could be getting a call from Dr Muscat is Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, seen by many on the Labour side as a loyal, hard-working politician who is very close to the people and with the kind of personality that is suitable for the post of President.

Again, if Dr Mallia or Dr Coleiro Preca is appointed, a Cabinet reshuffle or reassignment of duties would be required.

Other media have speculated that former Speaker of the House Miriam Spiteri Debono could be considered for the post. If either she or Dr Coleiro Preca is appointed, Labour would be nominating a second woman President after Agatha Barbara, who was President between 1982 and 1987.

Dr Muscat might also break away from tradition, and appoint a person with a national standing who does not have a political background. This call has been made several times in the past, with people in favour of such a move arguing that the presidential role should be above partisan politics and be really a position that unites the country.

He could also be bringing back someone from Labour’s past for the job, and in this case his choice could fall on Lino Spiteri, a former Labour minister. Mr Spiteri is not seen as a controversial figure and could be well-accepted by the Nationalist side too.

But after Dr Busuttil’s challenge on TV last Thursday, there are other considerations for Dr Muscat to bear in mind. If he takes up Dr Busuttil’s suggestion, it would not please the Labour grassroots and would be seen as accepting a suggestion made by the Opposition Leader. If, on the other hand, he does not listen to Dr Busuttil and appoints a President from the Labour camp, he would then be accused of appointing a “partisan” head of state and not reciprocating the gesture made by Dr Gonzi in 2009.

But who would Simon Busuttil have in mind when he admits that he knows who he could nominate for the presidency?

Could it be Lawrence Gonzi himself? If this is so, and Dr Muscat goes down this road, this would anger Labour supporters even more, as Dr Gonzi is seen by most of them as an enemy more than a political adversary. On the other hand, it would please the Nationalist side of the electorate.

This move is highly unlikely, so another name Dr Busuttil could have in mind is that of former Education Minister Dolores Cristina, who retired from politics at the end of the past legislature, and is seen as being quite moderate. In fact, the Labour government has already chosen her to replace Dr Abela as Acting President when he is out of the country, which gives her some kind of advantage.

Another woman Dr Busuttil might have in mind is former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono who, like Mrs Cristina, is not a controversial figure and more acceptable to Labour.

Last time around, Dr Gonzi nominated Dr Abela as President after informing the then Opposition Leader in January, more than two months before he was due to be appointed. As the speculation grows, it remains to be seen whether Dr Muscat will also opt for an early nomination to end all the assumptions and conjecture.


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