VALLETTA – Malta’s Labor Party was choosing a new leader Saturday to replace Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who announced his resignation amid increasing demands at home and abroad for accountability following the assassination of an anti-corruption journalist.
Around 17,500 Labor Party members were eligible to choose between two contenders Saturday: Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, 56, and Labor lawmaker Robert Abela, 42. The victor will automatically become prime minister.
Results were expected early Sunday, with the new leader to address the nation Sunday afternoon. Muscat has said he will resign following the election of the new Labor leader.
Both candidates have acknowledged that recent weeks have been “difficult” for Malta, stopping short of criticizing Muscat but pledging to work to restore Malta’s reputation abroad and citizens' confidence in the rule of law.
In a farewell speech Friday, Muscat said he was paying “the highest political price for a dark episode” by stepping aside, a reference to the car-bomb slaying of Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017. He said he was proud that under his tenure people had been arrested and charged with the killing.
Muscat announced his resignation Dec. 1 after his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested and questioned in connection with the killing. Schembri was later released but is still under investigation.
Caruana Galizia was known for her unrelenting reporting on corruption at the highest levels in Maltese politics and business, for loose financial and banking rules have made Malta an attractive place for money launderers. She had reported threats shortly before her death.
Three men are facing trial for carrying out the assassination, while a fourth, prominent Maltese businessman Yorgen Fenech, has been charged with complicity in the murder. He denies wrongdoing.
Muscat has served as Malta’s prime minister for 6 1/2 years, and leaves Labor with a comfortable majority in Parliament. His decision to quit did not allay public protests against the government.
In the wake of the journalist's killing, European lawmakers sent two delegations to Malta to investigate rule of law on the island nation. And legal experts from Europe’s top human rights body issued a report saying Malta needs better checks and balances since the prime minister’s powers eclipse those of other institutions.