Freedom in the World
In November 2001, the European Commission issued its annual report on European Union (EU) enlargement. It declared that accession negotiations with Malta could conclude in 2002 with the possibility of it's acceding in 2004. The report highlighted Malta's progress, declaring that it is one of only two applicant countries that has a functioning market economy and could cope with competitive pressure and market forces in the EU. It stressed, however, the need for the Maltese government to continue implementing reforms especially in the agricultural and environmental sectors. A national referendum is scheduled to be held in 2003 before Malta can accede to the EU. The opposition, the Malta Labor Party (MLP) led by Alfred Sant, continues to oppose EU membership and pledges to disregard the outcome of the referendum if the Labor Party wins the next general elections.
Since it gained independence in 1964 within the Commonwealth and then became a republic in 1974, Malta has carefully maintained its neutrality, balancing its links with Europe to the north with ties to Arab nations to the south. The strategically located archipelago, of which Malta is the largest island, was occupied by a long succession of foreign powers. From independence in 1964 to 1971, Malta was governed by the Nationalist Party (PN), which pursued its policy of firm alignment with the West. In 1971, however, MLP came to power and implemented its policy of nonalignment and special friendship with leftist governments in Libya and Algeria. The PN returned to power in 1987 and filed an application for membership in the EU in 1991. However, the MLP regained power in 1996 and suspended the application.
Prime Minister Alfred Sant, of the MLP, was ousted from his position in 1998, and the PN once again reclaimed power, with Eddie Fenech Adami as prime minister. In 1999, the PN-dominated parliament installed Guido de Marco as president after he had served 22 years as deputy chairman of the party. The leading political parties, which have alternated in power with each other, have taken conflicting positions as to the direction in which Malta should lean: The currently ruling PN favors closer ties with Europe while the MLP formerly favored closer ties with Libya and Algeria but now favors strict neutrality.
Citizens of Malta can change their government democratically. Members of the house of representatives, the country's unicameral legislature, are elected on the basis of proportional representation every five years. Parliament elects the country's president to a five-year term. Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president is charged with formally appointing a prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press. Since 1992, the government has sponsored programs to diversify the media. In addition to several Maltese-language newspapers, a few English-language weeklies are published. Malta's two main political parties own television and radio stations, as well as newspapers, which promote their political views. Italian television and radio are also popular. Malta has one of the lowest rates of Internet usage in Europe, with only an estimated four percent of the population having access to the Internet. Roman Catholicism is the state religion. The government grants subsidies only to Roman Catholic schools. Students in government schools may opt to decline instruction in Roman Catholicism. Freedom of worship by religious minorities is respected. About 200,000 Maltese turned out for the Pope's visit in May, when he beatified three Maltese.
Workers have the right to associate freely and to strike. There are more than 35 independent trade unions that represent more than 50 percent of the population. All unions are independent of political parties; however, the largest, the General Workers' Union, is regarded to have informal ties with the MLP.
The judiciary is independent of the executive and legislative branches. The president, on the advice of the prime minister, appoints the chief justice and nine judges. The constitution requires a fair public trial, and defendants have the right to counsel of their choice. In 1999, Malta abolished the death penalty for all offenses, replacing it with life imprisonment.
A constitutional amendment banning gender discrimination took effect in 1993. While women constitute a growing portion of the workforce, they are underrepresented in management positions and political leadership. There are no women judges, and women make up only about nine percent of the members of parliament.