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In December, Malta was one of ten countries invited to join the European Union (EU) in 2004. A national referendum is scheduled to be held in 2003 before Malta can formally accede to the EU, and popular support for accession remains divided. 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.
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. Adami promptly revived Malta's EU application after his return to power. 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, 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 favors strict neutrality. Elections held in March for 22 local councils had a turnout of 72 percent.
In October, the European Commission issued its annual report on EU enlargement. The report praised the Maltese government for achieving "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law," and added that Malta had "continued to take measures to improve the effectiveness and transparency of its public administration" and to reform its judicial system. However, a scandal that emerged in August, in which two judges were found to have accepted bribes in return for reducing the sentence of a convicted drug trafficker, dented public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.
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.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but also establishes Roman Catholicism as 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.
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. Malta abolished the death penalty for all offenses in 1999, replacing it with life imprisonment. Authorities made progress in 2002 in reducing the backlog of pending civil cases, according to the EU accession report.
The Refugee Act of 2000 provides for the granting of refugee or asylum status in accordance with UN principles. In October, Amnesty International criticized the Maltese government for forcibly deporting over 200 Eritrean detainees back to Eritrea after their asylum claims were rejected.
A constitutional amendment banning gender discrimination took effect in 1993. While women constitute a growing portion of the workforce, they are underrepresented in managerial positions and political leadership. There are no women judges, and women make up only about nine percent of the members of parliament. Domestic violence against women remains a problem.