Sunday, 11 January 2009

An Obvious Choice for President

11th January 2009

11th January 2009
The Malta Independent on Sunday
The new game in town is guessing who will be the next President of the Republic when Dr Fenech Adami’s term comes to its natural conclusion in spring.

We have had outright suggestions or mere speculation involving names ranging from retired and still active politicians, a philosopher poet, a former international judge, a former ombudsman and others. Most are worthy of serious consideration but frankly there is an obvious choice that somehow has escaped everybody’s attention.

Before revealing my suggestion let me list the criteria on which I made my selection. The person for the honourable post of President has to be a figure of national stature. This narrows the selection from over 400,000 to barely a 1,000.

The person has to be of mature age at the end of a career that made him a national figure and at an age that will permit the person to slip easily into retirement once his/her term as President expires. Surely we need ex-Presidents to behave in their retirement in a manner that is decorous of their status, avoiding involvement in commercial or political activity and limiting any public expressions purely to noble philanthropic causes. This reduces the selection to a mere few hundreds.

The person has to have wide acceptability across a broad spectrum of society. He has to represent the whole nation. Dr Fenech Adami’s appointment was highly criticised at the time as inappropriate coming hot on the heels of 27 years as leader of the Nationalist Party and holding the position of either Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition. Involvement in politics at such high level renders the figure divisive by nature and rather unrepresentative of former political opponents, which form approximately half of the Maltese nation. In fairness, it must be said that for all prior reservations, Dr Fenech Adami has discharged his presidential duties with full dignity and honour. In the process, his performance challenged the concept that a former high-level politician would be inappropriate for a unifying Presidency.

So those are my three criteria for selection: national status, mature age, and broad acceptability.

I can see no candidate that fits these criteria better than Dr Alfred Sant former Leader of the Labour Party and former Prime Minister.

As to national status, there is no doubt that Dr Sant scores more maximum points than any other candidate from outside the political stables. As to age, Dr Sant will receive his kartanzjan next month. He comes without any business or commercial connections and it is perfectly obvious that after a presidential term at age 66, he will have no desire to re-involve himself in active politics. His scores maximum points on this second criterion too.

My suggestion probably raises eyebrows in so far as the third criterion of broad acceptability is concerned. It will find resistance from those who feel that this time we should look outside the political box when we choose the next president. I feel that Dr Sant still scores very high points on the concept of broad acceptability and, following the experience with Dr Fenech Adami’s presidency, I think we can wait at least another term before considering a president from outside the political crop.

Dr Sant is not merely a politician. He is an intellectual, an established writer and probably one of the most academically intelligent persons around. Even though his political performance has not been stellar, in the sense that he spent 14 of the 16 years in Opposition when he was Labour leader and in the process losing three of the four general elections he contested, he must be credited as the person who was most instrumental in bringing maturity and calmness in the way we do politics.

Labour will obviously endorse Dr Sant’s nominations with open arms, probably with enthusiasm. After four consecutive terms where the presidency was occupied by former stalwart PN personalities, Labour feels it would be a fine gesture, in recognition of the fact that Labour command a very robust minority which is only a hairline below the PN’s relative majority as expressed in the March 2008 election, if the PN government were to offer the presidency to a Labour personality. After all, the presidency carries no executive power and will in no way prove an obstacle in the execution of the electoral mandate. When the late Paul Xuereb carried on as Acting President in the first years of the PN legislature of 1987 – 1992, the government functioned as well as it would have if the President were a normal PN selection.

Dr Sant’s nomination would provide space for a new green shoot among Labour’s parliamentary candidates, projecting a better image as a party with solutions for the future rather than a legacy-baggaged backward looking lot.

This week Dr Sant wrote a rare piece in l-orizzont, which proves that he quickly got infected with what I call the curse of Labour’s ex-leaders. The curse where Labour ex-leaders rather enjoy their retirement in silence, allowing space and time for their successor to shape the Party in his own vision, create obstacles in an effort to defend their legacy. Dr Sant criticised the independent report commissioned by Labour to analyse the third consecutive general election defeat under his leadership and repeated past claims that the narrow defeat is all due to the government’s abuse of its power of incumbency and one need look for no further reasons. Dr Sant does not explain why there was a smooth change of government in 1987 and 1996, in spite of substantial power of incumbency of the sitting government, and takes no account that long tenure of power brings with it liability of incumbency and not just its power. Often the liability is greater than the power.

Dr Sant’s election to the presidency would save Labour further embarrassment from ex-Leaders bent on putting defence of their personal legacy ahead of the party’s general interest. PL leader Dr Joseph Muscat commented with clinical precision in reacting to his predecessor’s outburst. “The country is facing new challenges and the answer to these challenges cannot be the failed solutions of the past.” It was as close as he could get to tell Dr Sant to shut up in diplomatic speak. Dr Muscat is growing impressively in his role as PL leader, better than my best expectations. This week he grew taller still.

Why should the PN also accept Dr Sant’s nomination even if with muted enthusiasm? It’s all a matter of gratitude. Nobody has given the PN more than Dr Sant did. Nobody has given the PN three election victories, which Labour could easily have won were it not for Dr Sant’s failed policies. In 1998 Dr Sant threw away a mandate when he compromised his parliamentary majority by publicly denigrating Mr Mintoff. In 2003 Dr Sant forced the electorate’s hand to vote him into Opposition when he delivered the choice of either Labour or the EU. In 2008 he stayed in position even though he knew he was the PN’s best asset, so much so that Labour campaign strategists would not dare put their leader’s face on a party campaign billboard.

The PN owe Dr Sant the presidency. No one is better suited for it.

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