Maltese PM heads for re-election despite corruption fears
Voters in Malta headed to the polls on Saturday in general elections that are expected to guarantee a new term for the government, despite concerns over corruption in a country still rocked by the murder of a journalist.
Opinion polls had pointed to a decisive victory for Labor Prime Minister Robert Abela, who campaigned on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his party’s economic record during nine years in office.
But Labor is also still marred by the high-level corruption exposed by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in a car bomb in October 2017 – a murder that shocked the world.
A public inquiry last year found that the state led by then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had created a “culture of impunity” for which those who wanted to silence her.
Muscat had previously resigned in January 2020, after public protests over his alleged attempts to shield his allies from the investigation into his death.
He was replaced in a Labor Party vote by Abela.
The new prime minister has taken steps to strengthen good governance and press freedom, although anti-corruption campaigners and Caruana Galizia’s family say he hasn’t gone far enough.
At a final rally on Thursday, Abela urged flag-waving supporters to “trust me for my first term so I can keep making a difference.”
But opposition Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech kept up the pressure, demanding more action and questioning the government’s development agreements.
Addressing his own supporters on Thursday, one of the few mass gatherings allowed due to coronavirus restrictions, Grech warned that “our democracy is at stake”.
Analysts expect lower turnout this year, in a country where it normally exceeds 90%, after a lackluster campaign overshadowed by concerns over the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month.
But a queue had still formed outside a polling station in the capital Valletta before voting began at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT).
Polls close at 10:00 p.m. (21:00 GMT), with preliminary results expected on Sunday.
– Money in their pockets –
Located off the coast of Sicily, predominantly Catholic Malta is the smallest and most densely populated country in the European Union, with around 516,000 people living in 316 square kilometers (122 square miles).
Its location in the middle of the Mediterranean has made it a repeated target for invaders over the centuries, resulting in a rich culture, with the 16th-century fortified capital designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite few natural resources, the former British colony has built a thriving economy based largely on tourism, financial services and online gambling, but has long fought claims that it acts as a virtual tax haven.
Malta was gray listed last year by the international anti-money laundering body FATF, although earlier this month the body reported progress, raising hopes that the country could be delisted this summer.
The island nation has also been criticized for its “golden passport” scheme, which grants citizenship to wealthy investors who often barely set foot in the country.
Under political pressure, Abela suspended the program for Russians and Belarusians after the invasion of Ukraine, but the European Parliament this month demanded an end to all such programs across the bloc.
For many voters, Malta’s economic growth trumps all other concerns.
The coronavirus sent the economy into a tailspin, but the government supported individuals and businesses, and growth last year exceeded 9%.
“Since the Labor Party has been there, it has always worked for the people,” said Josephine Canilleri, 71, having a coffee in the town of Mosta with her friends.
“If there is corruption right now, at least people are not suffering, they have money in their pocket. Leave their pockets alone and people are fine.”
But there are others like Joanne O’Donnell, 37, a Maltese who returned from her home in Denmark to vote, who insist that “Labour must get out of government”.
“In the eyes of people (abroad), Malta has gone from a paradise to this place where Daphne was murdered,” she said at the Nationalist Party rally in Valletta.
“I’m not proud of that.”
– ‘We can’t breathe’ –
The environment is another big issue here, with residents complaining about a lack of green space after a years-long building boom.
“There are trucks everywhere, you can’t breathe, there’s dust, there’s concrete – no trees, no greenery, zero,” complains Vincent Borg, 68, who buys his breakfast in Mosta.
Both major parties pledged to do more to protect the environment.
There is a green party, the ADPD, but no third party has held a seat in the Maltese parliament since before independence in 1964.