In 78 days, a new president should be sworn in. Just before that there’s Easter. Before that Parliament needs to meet and vote and appoint the new president. For the first time ever, the person will have to be chosen with the support of both sides of the house. So before that a consensus between the political parties needs reaching. We have no idea how long that should take but given the utter absence of ongoing cross-party dialogue on just about anything it’s unlikely to be a quick thing.

Of course, before going to Parliament to vote, the parties will need to have got the agreement of the candidate. Since this is not a position one can aspire to, whoever it’s going to be, will be having this thing sprung on them like an unexpected personal tragedy. They’ll need to agree to give up what they’re doing for the next five years, possibly for the rest of their lives. In a way being a president is both a privilege and a sudden doom, one you can’t have planned for.

They’ll need to talk their spouse to agree to move out of their family home so they can live in the official residences. They’ll need to get their agreement and support because this will affect the entire family.

In simple terms, choosing a president is a big deal.

It would surprise you to learn then that the government does not think it’s yet time to start discussing with the opposition on finding a name they agree with.

Instead, Robert Abela is using his obnoxious public appearances to shoot ominous warnings across the bow. He said recently that the next president must be progressive, not conservative, and bring the nation together. Let’s decode that. He can’t have said the next president must be a Laburist, not a Nazzjonalist, because such an explicit statement cannot be combined with the professed ambition of finding a unifying character. But that’s what Robert Abela wants the public to understand him to mean.

“Progressive” and “conservative” are not ideological labels. If they were, George Vella would count among the latter, not the former. “Progressive” and “conservative” are cyphers for loyalty to one or the other party. He is telling the PN they should not even consider the idea of a nominee who is not firmly from within the PL.

Robert Abela is the son of George Abela who is a former deputy leader of the Labour Party and a prominent figure of the 1996-1998 Labour government. Back when prime ministers chose presidents without the need of the consent of the opposition, PN prime minister Lawrence Gonzi made George Abela president. He knew George Abela since their university days. True, Abela was a Laburist, but hey, nobody’s perfect. He had other good qualities, Gonzi figured, and what’s more unifying than crowning someone from the other side?

The Labour Party considers that choice as one of Lawrence Gonzi’s mistakes. They don’t admire him for it. They mock him for it. They perceive this openness to outsiders as a sign of weakness, as a fault in the only value they understand: fanatical loyalty to one’s own colours and the utter exclusion of anyone outside.

It is of course deeply ironic that Robert Abela considers the choice of his father as a president as someone’s mistake. Though that doesn’t matter. What matters is this is a mistake he does not want to repeat.

The fact that Robert Abela has not invited the opposition for talks yet shows that he would rather force a deadlock and a constitutional vacancy than to try to reach some form of consensus. He has an easy way out after all. He would fill the vacancy with some convenient temporary but long-term appointment of some lackey as acting president.

They point to the “precedent”, as they might call it, of Paul Xuereb who was retained for some two years as acting president when Eddie Fenech Adami came to power in 1987. The difference though is that Paul Xuereb came from the other political side and Eddie Fenech Adami retained him as acting president even though he had been first appointed to that post by Paul Xuereb’s party colleagues of the preceding Labour government. It was indeed remarkable that Eddie Fenech Adami kept him there as long as he did, achieving in the process the decoupling of the term of office of the president from the due date of elections to Parliament.

The retention of Paul Xuereb was stately and conciliatory, something Robert Abela would consider a mistake as well.

To keep up appearances Robert Abela will put forward some names for the opposition to consider for the next presidency. The “must be progressive” thing means he’s going to put forward names of people like, say, Michael Falzon or Anton Refalo on whom he’ll want to force retirement, or, say, Helena Dalli who will be coming home from her term in the Commission in June and he’ll want to keep out of his hair.

The opposition will be faced with a take it or leave it attitude by the government. They’ll be forced to either accept one of the names given to them by Robert Abela or be accused of causing the deadlock that would ensue if the opposition determines that all names put to it are unacceptable.

The least bad of the “progressive” choices given to the opposition will be very problematic. Robert Abela will ensure that all the names put forward would be tainted by the judgement of the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry: as former members of Joseph Muscat’s cabinet they would have been held responsibility for the atmosphere of impunity that allowed her to be killed.

Like George Vella now, the government will want to ensure that whoever sits in the president’s office for the next 5 years shares in their culpability for enabling Joseph Muscat. All options given to the opposition will be carrying that.

Once again this will demonstrate the cynicism with which the government agreed to introduce the small number of reforms after Daphne was killed that were meant to satisfy the pressures from the Council of Europe and other international bodies after they realised how easy it was for Joseph Muscat to capture and retain a monopoly on power.

The two-thirds majority requirement to elect the president was one of these changes, introduced on paper to show that Labour in government was willing to share some of its powers, in this case the power to place a puppet in the president’s chair. The world was duly impressed by this and the institutions that applied pressure on the government published reports congratulating themselves for forcing change in Malta.

Here we are at the first application of this new law, and we can see that when they introduced it in the first place, the government had as much intention of honouring the meaning of the new law as Hitler’s signature on the Munich accord.