The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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Five years of George Vella: The political crises, the moral quandaries characterising a presidency

Albert Galea Sunday, 31 March 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 18 days ago

When he was appointed as Malta’s 10th President of the Republic on 4 April 2019, George Vella was probably not expecting what was to come.

Having been an MP between 1976 and 2017, and serving in Cabinet as Minister for Foreign Affairs when the Labour Party was in government between 1996 and 1998 and again between 2013 and 2017, when he bowed out of politics, Vella will have been no stranger to hard talks and hard diplomacy.

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But very little could have prepared him – or anyone, for that matter – for what was to come during his five-year presidency.

Crises threatened to rip the very fabric of Malta’s political environment apart, a global pandemic ravaged the country and changed how we live, and on more than one occasion the reforms of a more progressive nature than the country was used to challenged society’s – and the President’s – conscience.

These are the things which will characterise the five years of George Vella’s presidency when the history books are written.

 

The President and Politics

During his presidency, Vella had to face not one, but two political crises as both the government and the Opposition faced internal chaos.

The first was in the form of the ignominious resignation of then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. In the midst of street protests, which drew thousands, Muscat ultimately stepped down – but not before Vella himself was drawn into the situation.

As protestors clamoured against Muscat, they ganged up on Vella as well for his silence at Yorgen Fenech’s arrest and the subsequent details connecting key officials in the Muscat administration to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder emerged.

This came to a head at the 2019’s Republic Day celebrations – held after Fenech had been arrested, but before Muscat had actually stepped down from his post – where protestors lined the barricades along Republic Street and chanted “Mafia! Mafia” at the President as he drove by.

Vella would later say in a radio interview that he was deeply hurt by this, saying that some had gone as far as calling him and his wife “assassins” among other insults.

He would use his speech that day to denounce the “gang of people” who had brought shame on the country. “Those who brought us to this juncture – whoever they are – were not working in the interest of the People of Malta,” Vella had said.

He would later acknowledge the role civil society played during the protests, and said that his priority at the time was safeguarding the Constitution.

The political scene settled when Muscat was succeeded by Robert Abela at the start of 2020 – but not for all that long: in that summer it was the PN’s turn to have a political crisis, dragging in the President as it threatened to blow itself apart.

Adrian Delia, who was elected PN leader in 2017, had already faced one confidence vote in 2019, but almost exactly 12 months later, the discontent amid the party’s poor showings in election polls reached boiling point.

Seventeen out of the party’s 28 MPs voted that they didn’t have confidence in Delia as the party leader, and immediately went to Vella in order to trigger a constitutional process to have the President remove Delia as Opposition leader.

Constitutional law experts believed that Vella was duty bound to remove Delia from the post of Opposition leader (but not PN leader) if he deemed that he had lost the majority support of his MPs, and then appoint an MP, who enjoyed the support of the majority of the Opposition MPs, in his stead.

However, after a day of talks, Vella ascertained that while Delia didn’t have the support of the majority of his MPs, he could not be removed from the post of Opposition leader because that role must be held by the leader of the largest party in Opposition to the government – which was the PN.

The President’s decision drew backlash from the rebellious faction, who accused him of breaching the Constitution and of acting so that the Opposition remains ineffective against the government.

Delia would ultimately remain PN leader until he lost an internal election to Bernard Grech later that year.

 

Matters of the conscience: Cannabis, IVF and abortion

One of the President’s constitutional roles is to rubber-stamp laws which are approved in Parliament. This is not usually an issue – but on three separate occasions during the Presidency, the laws approved by Parliament appeared to conflict with the President’s personal views.

The first happened in 2021, when the government pushed through legislation which was to legalise cannabis for recreational use – something which came in spite of protests by a number of NGOs and medical professionals.

Vella, himself a doctor, had highlighted his own reservations about the legalisation of cannabis for anything beyond medical use just two years prior.

Addressing a conference in June 2019, he had said: “Both as a doctor and father I have major reservations on how wise it is to extend the legalisation of cannabis that goes beyond its medical usage.”

Yet when push came to shove two-and-a-half years later, he said that his hands were tied and that the Constitution precluded him from deciding not to sign off on any law which comes before him.

“We hear calls that the president should do this and that but we need to be informed of what is possible… The head of state cannot capriciously create a constitutional crisis and cause instability… there is nothing in our Constitution that gives the president the final say on a law, otherwise we will create a dictator who decides what becomes law at a whim,” Vella had said.

Indeed, Article 72 of the Constitution states that the president must assent to bills approved by Parliament “without delay” once they have gone through the Parliamentary process.

It was this article that he was accused of breaching when, just seven months later in July 2022, the second moral conundrum came before him. This time it was in the form of an IVF reform, which allowed doctors to perform genetic testing on IVF embryos and indefinitely freeze those carrying rare and severe diseases.

Vella was said to be uncomfortable with the bill, and the government’s sudden appointment of Frank Bezzina as acting president instead of Dolores Christina just two weeks before the bill went to Parliament for a vote, was widely seen as an insurance policy just in case the President would choose not to sign it.

In fact, Vella did not sign it himself: the bill spent three weeks on his desk without a signature, and it was Bezzina who gave it the necessary rubber-stamp as soon as Vella went abroad on a state engagement.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday last year, Vella explained his decision for the first time.

“I wanted to send a message there… a message that I wasn’t one hundred per cent in agreement with the law,” Vella said when asked about the controversy.

“I didn’t disagree with its aim, but there was a delicate medical and scientific debate which was that you could obtain the same result – maybe not at one hundred per cent certainty – by doing different tests which would not endanger the embryo,” he said.

It was the first time that the President had directly said that he is not in favour of the law and explained exactly why – when questioned by the media at the time, he had merely insisted that the bill would be signed, but did not specify by whom.

“To me it wasn’t enough of an ethical and moral issue for me to say that I would resign, as on the other hand I was weighing up this against the fact that I would create a constitutional crisis [by resigning],” he continued.

“But I did what I could and said what I could so that we could maybe choose a different way of testing,” he said.

What was enough of an ethical and moral issue for him to threaten to resign came later in the form of a reform to Malta’s abortion laws.

Vella had repeatedly insisted throughout his presidency that he would rather resign than sign a bill, which would introduce abortion into the country.

“I will never sign a bill that involves the authorisation of murder,” Vella had said 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.”

And when the government – in response to the Andrea Prudente case in summer 2022 – came out with reforms that would allow doctors to terminate a pregnancy when a woman's life is in danger or her health was in “grave jeopardy”, Vella stuck to his guns.

The first version of the reform was widely panned by pro-life NGOs and activists due to its wording: they believed that the wording was vague enough that it would allow abortions in almost any circumstance and at any time.

The President himself told those close to him at the time that he was ready to resign should the bill come before him as it was. This led to a seven-month freeze on the reform, as the government drafted changes to avoid what would have been a first – the President resigning mid-term – and what would have precipitated a constitutional crisis.

The new version of the bill was ultimately unveiled in June 2023, pacifying the pro-life lobbies. It was unanimously approved in Parliament, and Vella gave it his seal of approval without issue.

 

Covid, the Constitution and the Environment

Among all other things, Vella will be remembered as the President who helped steer Malta through the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a time of great hardship and where people were locked down in their own homes, others were locked down away from their families, and others were quarantined from the outside world, Vella proved to be the face of unity.

He fronted national messages to encourage people to stay together, to praise frontliners and to offer condolences to the victims. He later put himself at the forefront of the country’s vaccination campaign as the fight against Covid-19 entered a new phase.

The pandemic caused havoc in priorities and plans, but the President continued to push important activities, particularly fundraising ones for the Malta Community Chest Fund, despite the restrictions in place at various points in time.

He dedicated a number of speeches throughout his tenure to the Maltese environment and the importance of its protection.

Speaking about Gozo, for example, which he described as a “fragile gem”, he had said: “How can a family enjoy a good life with such threats to the natural environment? How can Maltese youths continue to cherish their country’s national heritage when it is changing in such a drastic way?”

In other interventions, he did not shy away from calling on the Planning Authority to take “radical decisions” to change the course of Malta’s development.

His initiatives to safeguard and increase better use of the Maltese language have also been noteworthy throughout his tenure.

However, one regret he has said that he will have was that the all-important constitutional reform – in the form of a Constitutional Convention among other things – did not take off under his presidency. This was in part due to the pandemic, but he has since also lamented that neither political party appeared to have the will to go through with this.

But as one chapter ends, and another begins, this is a story that might well be written in the next five years.

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