Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela promised “greater humility” Sunday as his Labour Party claimed they were headed for a landslide win in elections to secure a third term in government, despite a legacy of corruption and the lowest turnout in decades.
Official results are not expected until early Monday morning, but Labour Party officials briefed reporters that they were heading for a big win based on preliminary results, while the opposition Nationalist Party conceded defeat.
“The public decided that Malta must continue moving forward,” Abela told reporters at the counting center in the town of Naxxar, as supporters nearby chanted his name.
“It is a result which brings a greater responsibility, and which we must translate into greater humility,” he added, vowing to work “with a sense of national unity… in the interests of everyone.”
Abela had campaigned on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Labour’s economic record during nine years in power. By contrast, the opposition Nationalist Party has been hamstrung by internal divisions.
But turnout was lower than expected after a lackluster campaign limited by coronavirus restrictions, dogged by worries about the war in Ukraine and perhaps some resignation among voters after opinion polls indicated a Labour landslide.
The Electoral Commission estimated turnout at 85.5%, the lowest in a Maltese general election since 1955 — and the first time it has dropped below 90% since 1966.
However Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne told AFP the turnout was “high by European standards.”
Labour is still tainted by the high-level corruption exposed by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb near her home in October 2017, in a murder that shocked the world.
Seven men have either been accused or admitted complicity in her murder, but a public inquiry last year said the state under then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat must bear responsibility for having created a “culture of impunity” in which her enemies felt they could silence her.
Muscat had already stepped down in January 2020, after public protests at his perceived attempts to shield allies from the probe into her death. Abela replaced him following a Labour party vote.
The 44-year-old lawyer has since moved to strengthen good governance and press freedom, including by reducing the prime minister’s powers over judges and the police.
Caruana Galizia’s family says he has not gone far enough, however.
The Nationalist Party had pressed the issue of corruption on the campaign trail, highlighting the gray-listing last year of Malta by an international money-laundering watchdog, the FATF.
Despite few natural resources, Malta built a thriving economy based largely on tourism, financial services and online gaming, but it has long fought allegations it acts as a quasi-tax haven.
It has also been criticized by the EU and anti-corruption campaigners for its “golden passports” scheme, which awards citizenship to wealthy investors.
Under political pressure, Abela suspended the scheme for Russians and Belarusians after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Politics is hugely important in Malta, a Catholic-majority country of around 516,000 people living in 316 square kilometers (122 square miles) off the coast of Sicily.
Labour agents attending the election count had earlier erupted into cheers at news of victory, jumping for joy and banging the Perspex screens through which they had been monitoring the officials checking ballots.
As the day wore on, cars decorated in Labour’s red and white flags filled the roads, honking their horns, while outside the party’s headquarters supporters gathered dancing and cheering.
Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech later visited the count center to thank his own supporters, where he vowed to keep working for “those people who are not happy with the current government.”
Aside from the economy, the environment was a big issue on what is the smallest and most densely populated country in the European Union.
Huge development projects lined Malta’s coastline, green spaces are squeezed, concrete trucks cause gridlock on the streets and the sound of construction fills the air.
There is a green party, the ADPD, but no third party has held even a single seat in Malta’s parliament since before independence from Britain in 1964.