Voting has begun in Malta’s general elections with pre-poll surveys indicating a win for the incumbent government, which has campaigned on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and economic track record.
People queued outside a polling station in the capital, Valletta, before voting started at 7am (06:00 GMT). Polls close at 10pm (21:00 GMT), with provisional results expected on Sunday.
Labour party Prime Minister Robert Abela is banking on his party’s economic record during nine years in power and handling of the pandemic despite concerns about corruption in a nation still rocked by the assassination of a journalist.
But the party is still tainted by the high-level corruption exposed by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 – a murder that shocked the world.
A public inquiry last year found the state under then-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat created a “culture of impunity” for which those who wanted to 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.
He was replaced in a Labour party vote by Abela.
The new prime minister has made moves to strengthen good governance and press freedom, although anti-corruption campaigners and Caruana Galizia’s family say he has not gone far enough.
At a final rally on Thursday, Abela urged flag-waving supporters to “trust me with my first mandate so I can continue changing things”.
But opposition Nationalist Party leader Bernard Grech has kept up the pressure, demanding more action and questioning the government’s development deals.
Addressing his own supporters on Thursday, in one of only a few mass gatherings allowed due to coronavirus restrictions, Grech warned “our democracy is at stake”.
Analysts expect a lower turnout this year, in a nation where it normally tops 90 percent, after a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by worries over the effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month.
‘Money in their pocket’
Located off the coast of Sicily, Catholic-majority Malta is the smallest and most densely populated country in the European Union, with around 516,000 people living in 316 square kilometres (122 square miles).
Its location in the middle of the Mediterranean made it a repeated target for invaders down the centuries, resulting in a rich culture, with the 16th-century walled capital designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Despite few natural resources, the former British colony has built a thriving economy based largely on tourism, financial services and online gaming, but has long fought allegations it acts as a quasi-tax haven.
Malta was grey-listed last year by international anti-money-laundering organisation FATF, although earlier this month the body reported progress, raising hopes the country might be taken off the list this summer.
The island nation has also come under fire for its “golden passports” scheme, which awards citizenship to wealthy investors who often barely set foot in the country.
Under political pressure, Abela suspended the scheme for Russians and Belarusians after the Ukraine invasion, but the European Parliament this month demanded an end to all such schemes across the bloc.
For many voters, Malta’s economic growth trumps all other concerns.
Coronavirus sent the economy into free fall, but the government supported individuals and businesses, and growth last year topped nine percent.
“Ever since Labour has been in, it’s always worked for the people,” said Josephine Canilleri, 71, having a coffee in the city of Mosta with her friends.
“If there is corruption right now, at least the people are not suffering, they have money in their pocket. Don’t touch their pocket and the people are OK.”
But there are others like Joanne O’Donnell, 37, a Maltese who returned from her home in Denmark to vote, who insist “the Labour party has to get out of government”.
“In the eyes of people (abroad), Malta has gone from a paradise to that place where Daphne was murdered,” she said at the Nationalist Party rally in Valletta.
“I’m not proud of that.”
The environment is another big issue here, with residents complaining about the lack of green spaces following a years-long construction boom.
“There are trucks everywhere, we can’t breathe, there’s dust, there’s concrete – no trees, no green, zero,” complained Vincent Borg, 68, buying breakfast in Mosta.
Both main parties have pledged to do more to protect the environment.
There is a green party, the ADPD, but no third party has held even a seat in Malta’s parliament since before independence in 1964.