Malta votes Saturday in a snap general election called against a backdrop of corruption allegations that have tarnished Joseph Muscat’s government and clouded the otherwise sunny outlook for the island nation.
Final opinion polls pointed to 43-year-old Muscat’s Labor Party (PL) retaining power with a reduced majority four years after it swept into office on a re-distributive, pro-business and socially liberal platform which has sustained Malta’s recent economic success story.
The polls, however, also indicated that an unusually high 20 to 30 percent of the 341,856 registered voters had not made up their minds by the time campaigning concluded before the traditional pre-vote day of silence on Friday.
That left Simon Busuttil, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN) clinging on to hope of a last-minute swing in his direction. He had 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.
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 Panama-registered companies, having been exposed by last year’s massive data leak from the Mossack Fonseca legal firm based in the Central American country.
Muscat came under fire for not adequately reacting to the so-called Panama Papers.
Since then, the accusations made against his inner circle have broadened to include suggestions kickbacks were paid in relation to a controversial investment-based citizenship scheme and a gas supply deal with China, as well as bank licensing.
Shortly before calling the election, Muscat asked a magistrate to look into the allegations against his wife and vowed he would quit instantly if anyone could prove he had set up a hidden account.
“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. However, in those few months the economy would have been damaged and jobs would have been lost,” he said in defense of his decision to go to the polls.
Ballot stations open at 0500 GMT and turnout in Malta is usually over 90 percent.
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.
Veterans of Malta’s two-party political system say voters tend to remain extremely loyal, which explains why Muscat seems relatively unscathed by the deluge of charges against people close to him.