Malta decides future in bitter election battle
Maltese voters flocked to the polls Saturday in an election seen as a confidence vote in Joseph Muscat’s government, which has presided over a thriving economy but been rocked by serious corruption allegations.
Voting was brisk even by the standards of an island nation where more than 90 percent of the electorate generally turns out to vote.
Pre-election polls pointed to 43-year-old Muscat’s Labour Party (PL) retaining power but a high number of undecideds meant a surprise could not be ruled out.
A result is expected around midday Sunday in an election battled dominated by the fallout from the so-called Panama Papers, data leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca about offshore companies and bank accounts set up by wealthy individuals all over the world.
Simon Busuttil, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN), has framed the vote as a choice between change and allowing Malta’s international reputation, and its prosperity, to be shredded by a series of scandals.
“We were promised the best in the EU, instead we got Panama in the EU,” Busuttil supporter Angele Pulis said after voting Saturday.
– Kickbacks denied –
Muscat went to the polls a year early after his wife Michelle Muscat was accused of being the beneficial owner of a secret Panamanian shell company used to bank unexplained payments from Azerbaijan’s ruling family.
The premier’s chief of staff and a government minister have separately admitted having their own, previously undeclared offshore companies after being exposed by the Panama Papers.
Muscat came under fire for not firing the two men and the allegations against his inner circle have since broadened to include more detailed claims of kickbacks linked to an investment-based citizenship scheme, a gas supply deal with China and the granting of bank licences.
Muscat and his wife appeared relaxed as they cast their votes. Before announcing the election he asked a magistrate to look into the allegations against her and vowed to quit if any evidence of wrongdoing emerged.
“It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to weather the storm on the seat of power, while waiting for the magisterial inquiry to clear my name before calling an election,” he said earlier in the campaign.
“However, in those few months the economy would have been damaged and jobs would have been lost.”
Ballot stations close at 10pm (2000 GMT). An antiquated manual vote-counting system, being used for the last time, means no reliable indicator of the result will be available before midday on Sunday.
– ‘Embarrassed for Malta’ –
Many Maltese have lifelong allegiances to one of the two main parties, which experts say partly explains why Muscat appears to have been unscathed by the deluge of charges against people close to him.
“I have been Labour since I was born, and I will be Labour till I die,” said Muscat supporter Frank Abela, who is about to retire after a career in the oil industry.
But he said Labour loyalists were not indifferent to the corruption claims — they just want to see proof.
“An allegation is one thing, an investigation is another thing and being found guilty or innocent is the final verdict. I’m 100 percent convinced he (Muscat) is clean. Regarding the other people, we will find out in due course.”
Charlene Zammit said she had voted for Muscat because “Malta has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe and I want to keep it on the right track in the next five years.”
But pensioner Louis Attard said Malta’s economic success — it is growing three times faster than the eurozone as a whole — predated Muscat.
“He is doing well with what he found. It’s not on his merit,” Attard said.
Postgrad student Marie Claire Finger said the premier should have sidelined any officials with the shadow of corruption hanging over them.
“Personally I think that it is embarrassing… to say I come from a country going through these things at the moment,” she told AFP. “I hope there will be a change.”
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