Malta is a parliamentary republic with a parliament-elected President as Head of State, and a Prime Minister leading an elected government for five-year terms.
The Government of Malta is the responsibility of the Prime Minister and the cabinet, which is chosen from the elected members of the successful party at the general election. As in the UK, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to decide on the election day. Since independence in 1964, it has been the norm for the government to run its full term of office. In fact in only one of the eight post independence legislatures (1996) has the incumbent party failed to complete its full term. The current Prime Minister is Dr Lawrence Gonzi, head of the Nationalist Party, a centre-right party.
The role of President as Head of State is largely ceremonial, although the President has the duty of safeguarding the constitution of the country as well as chairing the Commission for the Administration of Justice. The present incumbent is George Abela.
Before 1964, the island was a British Crown Colony for over 150 years, an era that bequeathed an enduring legacy to the island as a whole, and the political system in particular. Under constant pressure from local politicians, the colonial authorities first granted Malta internal self-government in 1849. In 1921, the system of proportional representation was introduced during a general election that saw the first participation of political parties, as opposed to individual candidates, and despite the radical changes that have transformed the political arena since then, this method of electing representatives has been retained.
The thirty seven years since independence have seen the island coming to terms with its political maturity, emerging from the first two, politically unsettled decades as a small but solid nation with a politically aware electorate. After independence the island remained in the Commonwealth, with the Queen as head of state. On December 13, 1974 Malta declared itself a parliamentary republic, although it remains in the Commonwealth to this day.
In 1974 Malta gave notice of termination of the treaty on the stationing of British troops on the island with effect from 1979. Between 1987 and 1996 the Nationalist government sought to establish closer relations with the rest of Europe and applied for full membership of the European Union.
Malta is a member of the United Nations and an associate member of the European Union. It is the seat of the Regional Oil Combating Centre (ROCC), a UN organisation established in 1976, with the 17 states bordering the Mediterranean as members, to combat oil pollution.
As a non-aligned state, Malta is a member of no military alliance although it has a defence agreement with neighbouring Italy. Under an amendment to the constitution in 1987, Malta is committed to neutrality in the event of an international conflict. Its defence forces consist of around 1,000 volunteers, the Armed Forces of Malta, which are split up into an infantry unit, an air defence unit and a small naval unit. Over the years Malta has sought to exploit its geographical position between Europe and Africa to act as a bridge of peace between the two continents. It has close relations with its North African neighbours, particularly Libya and is seen to be generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
The Maltese electorate endorsed Malta’s application for full membership of the EU in a referendum held in March 2003. Malta became a member of the European Union in 2004.
The judiciary is totally independent from party politics and while the appointment of judges made by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, consultations with the Leader of the Opposition on the matter ensures that this vital sector is kept out of any sort of political controversy.
The civil service is the administrative arm of government and has its tradition rooted in that of its British counterpart. Over the past fifteen years great effort and expenditure has gone into the modernization of the civil service, mainly in response to criticism about the quality of its service. The improvement has mainly come about through a major reform in its working practices which in turn attracted bright, young individuals into its ranks who have introduced a fresh outlook into its organisation.
Successive governments have recognized the importance of projecting an image of stability that is so important for the progress of a young country looking to establish itself in an increasingly globalised world. While political debate is lively and often heated, both parties adhere to democratic rules to a degree that other new democracies can only envy.