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The perils of Constitutional reform

Why has Muscat suddenly floated the idea of holding a referendum on Constitutional reform?

Constitutional reform has been on the political agenda for five years, but despite all the talk very little has been done. However, the most worrying aspect is not the procrastination but the probable outcome of the reform.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has now floated the idea to hold a referendum if the need for a “strong mandate” arises.

In other words if any of the reforms proposed are not backed by the opposition or civil society Muscat will turn to the electorate for approval in what will inevitably turn into a tribal quest for supremacy. Thus, voters who might agree or disagree with the reforms will put their political loyalties first as this will be turned into a referendum on Muscat’s leadership.

Labour already has a mandate to change the Constitution as it was once again included in its 2017 electoral programme but we know very little of what changes will be proposed and considered. This could be good reason to hold a referendum, but at this point it sounds very much like an afterthought.

Speaking on Radju Malta’s Ghandi Xi Nghid, Muscat said work was underway behind the scenes to set up the structures in which the reforms will be discussed. In spite of all the talk on representation and bottom-up reform, the people will once again be presented with a fait accompli. A flawed structure will most probably produce a flawed reform therefore the people should have a say in what kind of structure is created.

Moreover, Franco Debono – who in 2013 was nominated as Constitutional Convention coordinator – has pointedly questioned whether extending voting rights to 16-year-olds should have been a matter decided by the convention.

In principle there is nothing wrong with it. If 16-year-olds are old enough to pay tax then they should also have a right to vote. But in Malta it will only translate into more intrusions by the two major political parties in the educational system. Granting full-voting rights to 16-year-olds is right but extinguishing critical thought and deepening political divisions is plain stupid.

If such reforms which shape our democracy are not decided by a truly representative convention, then what shall be discussed? Why has Muscat suddenly come forward with the idea of holding a referendum? Why wasn’t this proposed in Labour’s electoral programme? What problems is he foreseeing? What proposal could be met with stern opposition?

The answer could have been unwittingly revealed by Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar who in a tweet dismissed fears of using the reform to introduce a presidential system by saying ‘So what? Do you have a problem?’

Well lets start by having a look at what happened in the past elsewhere. History is riddled with examples of constitutional reforms being used by those in office to centralise power .

In Russia, Vladimir Putin greatly expanded his power during the last 17 years, serving a term as Prime Minister to extend his stay at the Kremlin beyond two terms. Turkey has also seen people vote in a referendum which strengthened the position of Recep Tayyip Erdogan who now is the head of government and head of state.

Will Muscat further centralise power in Castille? Will we go down the road of curbing Parliament’s power?

Labour’s electoral programme said it would initiate a constitutional reform ‘that will update the highest law of the land to reflect better the present realities, anticipate the future and give birth to the Second Republic’. Hopefully, the future which Muscat is anticipating does not see the people’s power usurped by a new emperor with no shame.

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