A Constitution for all

Just before summer recess, Parliament discussed amendments to the Constitution regulating, among other issues, the appointment of the President of the Republic. At first discussions seemed to have been bogged down because of the usual whataboutism infecting the Labour and Nationalist parties, and probably also because of the Nationalist’s current preoccupation with searching for their own ‘messiah’ (the problems of assigning ‘messiah’ status to party leaders is symptomatic of a political system based on partisanship and tribalism, but that is another story).

The final result of Wednesday’s vote, that is, a constitutional amendment which requires that a President is appointed by a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament, with the incumbent remaining in office until agreement is reached, is surely an improvement. However, despite all their rhetoric of bringing the constitution closer to ‘the people’ and their lofty pronouncements about democracy, they still rushed forward and continued the tradition of tinkering with the constitution rather than engaging in a deep and detailed public process of change. There are other ways through which the President could be elected, which is more representative of our communities and country. It is also pertinent to point out that the latest constitutional amendments come as a result of external and international pressure, raising doubts on whether the parliamentary parties are really convinced about the need for reform.

What do people expect from the office of the President? First and foremost, the President is expected to defend and see that the constitution is respected and adhered to, first and foremost by public authorities, Parliament, Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers. The issue is that the current constitution does not give the President the necessary tools to carry out this very important role. We do not need another strongman, or a President with executive powers. It is already problematic that the Prime Minister is already a be all and end all in our colonial political system. What is needed and what Alternattiva Demokratika has been proposing time and again is that the President is able, to act decisively and apply the brakes where and when needed. The President should be able to send a law which is deemed to be contrary to the constitution back to Parliament for example. Such an occurrence will hopefully be rare, and the President should be bound to provide a reasoned opinion detailing the unconstitutionality of that particular law or parts of it.

To be able to do this however, the President should be safe from any attempts to condition them, overt or otherwise. Alternattiva Demokratika had proposed repeatedly the election of the President of the Republic through a wider electoral college. Our proposal involves diluting the power of Parliamentarians and involving elected representatives of our communities, that is local councils. To be elected, a candidate for President would need two-thirds of the votes of an electoral college composed of all members of parliament together with representatives from all local communities, that is local councils, in the country, weighted according to the population of the respective localities. Such a system would necessitate a national discussion on the best candidate for the Presidency, and also strengthen the President’s role in defence of the basic democratic values underpinning the functioning of the state.

It is high time that the rhetoric about widening participation in the democratic process is put into practice. It is high time that power, in the positive, democratic sense of the word, is shared more widely.

The election of the President is one area through which this sharing of power can be put into practice. Of course, there are other aspects of the constitution which need reform. We have presented a detailed document to the President detailing our proposals last year. Amongst these, reforming the electoral system based on a party list system, making it more proportional and representative in terms of both demographics and gender and ideas; a fixed-term parliament, removing the prerogative of the Prime Minister to play the system in his or her favour; the right to propose laws for approval through referenda; and that the principles enshrined in the constitution become enforceable in the courts of law. It is also apt that a new or updated constitution reflects society and declares the obvious: that Malta is a secular state with its people embracing a plurality of values.

Other organisations have also presented a host of interesting proposals. It is high time a national discussion is kickstarted. Our Parliament, based on a winner-takes-it-all system and elected through a system which encourages clientelism and whataboutism, could have kickstarted a process of deep reform; instead it seems that they have chosen piecemeal tinkering.

Ralph Cassar
Published in the Maltatoday – Sunday 2 August 2020