Joseph Muscat wins second term in Malta elections

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Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has won a second term in office after calling a snap parliamentary election last month to counter allegations of corruption against his wife and some of his political allies.

Muscat’s Labor Party had polled about five percentage points ahead of Nationalist Party rival Simon Busuttil going into Saturday’s vote.

“The people have clearly chosen to stay on the road to even greater results,” Muscat said, referring to the strong performance of the Mediterranean island’s economy during his first mandate.

Busuttil conceded defeat on Twitter. “I have just called Joseph Muscat to concede. As always, we respect the decision of the electorate,” he wrote.

The 43-year-old Muscat is expected to be sworn in on Monday, after which he will begin forming his new government that will have a five-year mandate.

While official results have not been released, party officials from all sides are following the count. Labor won with almost 55 percent of the national vote, political sources told Reuters. Some 224 candidates were standing to be part of the 65-seat parliament.

The prime minister based his campaign on the island’s buoyant economy, which has been one of the strongest in the eurozone over the past four years.

Growth is running at about 6 percent, unemployment is at a record low of about 4 percent, and wages and pensions are rising.

Malta, which has a population of 400,000, is the European Union’s smallest state and currently holds the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency.

 

Panama Papers

The Panama Papers scandal, which detailed offshore companies and other financial data of the rich and powerful, exposed Malta’s energy minister and Muscat’s chief of staff as having acquired a company in Panama.

Muscat called new elections and ordered a magisterial inquiry midway through Malta’s first-ever stint at the presidency of the European Council after allegations surfaced in April that his wife also owned a company in Panama. The Muscats deny the allegations.

Setting up an offshore company is not illegal or evidence of illegal conduct, but shell companies can be used to avoid taxes or launder money.

After the publication of the Panama Papers last year, Muscat was criticized for retaining Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and chief of staff Keith Schembri, whose names figured in the document dump. They acknowledged that they acquired the companies but deny wrongdoing.

Since then, two other magisterial inquiries have been opened after opposition Nationalist leader Simon Busuttil lodged money laundering and kickback allegations against Schembri. Schembri denies any wrongdoing.

None of the investigations had finished before Saturday’s vote, prompting Busuttil to accuse Muscat of taking the country to the polls early to “save his skin.”

During the campaign, Busuttil – Muscat’s prime challenger – charged that accusations of corruption had hurt Malta’s financial services industry and would continue to damage the Mediterranean island’s reputation.

Muscat says has done nothing wrong, and has pledged to resign if the inquiry concerning him and his wife, Michelle, reveals any link to the company opened in Panama.

During the campaign, he promised continuity and greater wealth for a country that has the lowest unemployment rate ever at 4.1 percent – the third lowest in Europe – and in 2016 registered a budget surplus for the first time in three decades. Muscat also championed civil rights causes, introducing civil unions in 2014.

Voting takes place all day Saturday. There are no exit polls and counting of votes will be carried out manually starting Sunday morning. Results are expected later Sunday.