The Malta Independent 8 March 2021, Monday

Moving on towards absolutism

Noel Grima Sunday, 17 January 2021, 08:58 Last update: about 3 months ago

The thinking segment of our people was quite right to be alternately amused, then shocked by the curious turn of events which surrounded Gavin Gulia’s elevation to an MP and his sudden and immediate resignation.

No coherent and plausible explanation has been given by the main actors and we can only trade hypotheses. Meanwhile the personal reputations of two persons have been left in tatters, whatever they bravely say.

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The world I was brought up was that modelled on the British-given template, and even that quite different from the Westminster structure. Elections were not on the First Past the Post system but on a quaint system of electoral districts, quotas, transferable votes, etc – all rather incomprehensible to outsiders.

Yet some things still remain – ministers can only be appointed from elected members of the House of Representatives.

This is very different from the way ministers are appointed in other countries, such as France or Italy where the head of government can appoint ministers from outside Parliament.

One cannot claim one system is better than the other – they are two different systems, that’s all. But each has its advantages and disadvantages.

In our case, successive prime ministers have been chafing against this bit for many legislatures. We may remember Lawrence Gonzi complaining to a foreign dignitary about the low quality of his group. Obviously had he been allowed to choose his ministers from outside the House, he would have chosen differently.

Gonzi then chose a very restricted Cabinet and was made to suffer for it from some who were kept out.

His successor, Joseph Muscat, chose differently – the biggest Cabinet in history plus parliamentary secretaries as an intermediary level. Muscat did not get any revolt, until that fateful night in December 2019.

Still, in the parlance of politics, Muscat came to power after a long (far too long?) period of Nationalist government. The enthusiasm after the 2013 victory was sky-high and this carried forward in the 2017 one (plus some other factors).

Robert Abela, on the contrary, came to power in mid-legislature and on a daily basis has to face the fallout from the Muscat inheritance – ministers have resigned or moved, the Opposition and civil society and some international bodies keep braying for more.

Time is now running out and the next election is, so to speak, round the corner.

Then there is this awful pandemic which has destroyed the economy of the entire world.

And the survey published last Sunday showed Abela’s support decreasing, though it is still comfortably ahead of his rival.

But in politics, as in some other cases, it’s the trendline that matters and in Abela’s case the trendline is definitely not as upswing as in Muscat’s case and may even be starting to head south.

Hence the impelling need for corrective action. Another person could have taken a different route but Abela is choosing, at least as I see it, one specific route – he wants to be surrounded by his own team, most of them from outside the Muscat amalgam of party structure and Muscat’s loyalists.

To do so, he engineered the co-option strategy where the post of an MP is filled by a person who is nominated (by the majority in the House).

To get there, as we now know, he allowed a bye-election to be held to choose a successor to Edward Scicluna. Three election 2017 failed candidates ran and Gavin Gulia came on top.

But just minutes after taking the oath as an MP, Dr Gulia announced he was resigning, thus leaving the way open for Abela to co-opt whoever he wants.

It’s a strange method and one can only speculate what two of the failed candidates, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Dr Gulia, felt in their hearts.

Abela gets his man, and this is another building block in his preparation for the election.

This playing around with nominations is not rare in the Maltese context and in the difficulty of choosing the right ministerial team, different prime ministers have been trying out different solutions.

There is no masking the crudity of this manoeuvre. Abela is trying to solve his problems by aiming to get more power and a freer hand.

But there could be a different route, perhaps one requires a far more patient prime minister. This is that the electoral process must be respected in spirit and according to the letter of the law. People come with all kinds of characters and temperament but a real leader should be able to work with these parameters.

Dealing with these problems requires tact, foresight and prudence but that, I argue, is infinitely better than to be accused of not shying away from being perceived as intent on power plays.

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