Malta votes as corruption clouds bright outlook

Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in his home town of Burmarrad on June 3, 2017.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in his home town of Burmarrad on June 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

VALLETTA (AFP) - Maltese voters flocked to the ballot boxes on Saturday (June 3) in an early general election called against a backdrop of corruption allegations that have cast a shadow over Joseph Muscat's government and the island nation's thriving economy.

Pre-vote polls pointed to 43-year-old Muscat's Labour Party (PL) retaining power, four years after it swept into office on a redistributive, pro-business and socially liberal platform which has sustained Malta's recent economic success story.

But with an unusually high number of undecided voters, analysts had not ruled out a surprise change of government as a result of the fallout from the so-called Panama Papers revelations.

It will not be known until Sunday if Muscat is to become the latest political casualty of the data leak from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, which has already forced the Icelandic prime minister and the Spanish industry minister to resign.

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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.

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 are due to close at 10pm (4am Singapore time).

Turnout in Malta is usually over 90 per cent and there were long queues outside some voting stations by late morning.

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." Pensioner Louis Attard and postgraduate student Marie Claire Finger strike different notes.

Attard said the foundations for Malta's economic success - it is growing three times faster than the eurozone as a whole - were laid before Muscat took power.

"He is doing well with what he found. It's not on his merit," Attard said.

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." hey 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 per cent convinced he (Muscat) is clean. Regarding the other people, we will find out in due course."

Pensioner Louis Attard and postgraduate student Marie Claire Finger strike different notes.

Attard said the foundations for Malta's economic success - it is growing three times faster than the eurozone as a whole - were laid before Muscat took power.

"He is doing well with what he found. It's not on his merit," Attard said.

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."