The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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TMIS Editorial: The presidency: A rare point of convergence

Sunday, 31 March 2024, 10:30 Last update: about 18 days ago

When the government and the opposition agree on something as important as the person who is to occupy the seat of the Head of State for the next five years, then a little hope is rekindled that this country could have a better future.

But then one remembers that, two days before they led their parliamentary group to vote with one voice to appoint Myriam Spiteri Debono as the 11th President of the Republic, Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition Leader Bernard Grech were exchanging harsh words in Parliament on Malta’s defence policy, with both of them pointing fingers at each other in no uncertain terms.

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Different days, different moods, different subjects, one can argue.

At least on the crucial matter regarding the President, they arrived at a point of convergence, thereby avoiding a constitutional crisis. There were fears that there would have been a stalemate similar to the one that was encountered on the appointment of the Standards Commissioner, which had led to an impasse that lasted more than a year. The enactment of a controversial anti-deadlock mechanism was required for the matter to be resolved.

It would have been a more complicated issue with regard to the President who, according to amendments implemented in 2020, now needs the support of two-thirds of the House of Representatives to be installed. If no agreement had been reached on Spiteri Debono, then we would have been back to square one, with the added embarrassment that the two parties represented in Parliament could not find one single person they both saw as fitting for the job.

The opposition was right to insist that the new President should not be anyone who sat in the Joseph Muscat Cabinet, tainted by too many scandals which still reverberate today and condemned by a public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Thankfully, the government was on the same page.

It can be cheekily remarked that by not going for someone who formed part of the Muscat team, Abela was tacitly sending a message to Muscat – that he (Abela) wanted to distance himself from his predecessor and his (Muscat’s) administration.

It can also be cheekily pointed out that Abela missed the chance to reciprocate what former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi did in 2009. It was the first (and so far only) time that the President who was nominated came from the party which was then in opposition – and incidentally it was Robert’s father, George, who was given the honour by Gonzi. Abela would have surely scored many points with people who do not endorse a political party blindly if he had selected a person with a background from the opposite side of the political fence. But, perhaps, it was too much to ask for.

Still, it is good to note that Abela has agreed to have someone coming from the Nationalist Party to serve as Acting President when Debono is away from the island. The choice could not have been more appropriate – Francis Zammit Dimech has served as minister in PN governments for many years, but he always served his duties with the utmost respect, even when he was criticising his political opponents.

We are sure that Spiteri Debono, who served as Speaker in the Alfred Sant government between 1996 and 1998, will be the unifying figure that the country needs. She was always known to be a moderate in her approach, and this will be an asset for her when she is sworn in as the new President on Thursday.

All those who preceded her have lived up to the expectations, serving their country in what is largely a ceremonial role but one which carries huge responsibilities.

We saw it happening in the last five years with George Vella, who arguably had one of the most difficult presidencies since Malta became a Republic half a century ago.

In the last five years, Malta had to contend with a pandemic which upended our lifestyle and created months of uncertainty as we fought against the Covid-19 virus that put so much strain on our health sector, as well as bringing about economic repercussions.

He also had to deal with the political crisis that was brought about by the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, in the wake of arrests linked with Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Vella was also asked to intervene in the internal strife within the Nationalist Party, which ultimately led to a change of leadership there too.

Vella will also be remembered for the way he handled the IVF bill controversy – he had expressed misgivings about it and did not sign it. Instead, it was Acting President Frank Bezzina who did so at the first opportunity that Vella was out of the country.

But, as Abela and Grech remarked last Wednesday, Vella did a great job.

We wish him well, as we wish Debono a presidency that serves to bring the country together.

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