Malta holds early election amid corruption allegations

Voting comes as investigation launched into claims PM Muscat's wife owned company named Panama Papers scandal.

    Prime Minister Muscat went to the polls a year early following corruption allegations against his wife [Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]
    Prime Minister Muscat went to the polls a year early following corruption allegations against his wife [Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]

    Maltese voters are casting their ballots in a general election that was called against a backdrop of corruption allegations against the centre-left government of Joseph Muscat, current prime minister.

    Final opinion polls before Saturday's vote pointed to 43-year-old Muscat's Labour Party (PL) retaining power with a reduced majority.

    Ballot stations are expected to close at 10pm (20:00 GMT).

    Turnout in Malta usually tops 90 percent.

    The PL came to power four years ago after it swept into office on a redistributive, pro-business and socially liberal platform, which has sustained Malta's recent economic success story.

    READ MORE: Malta's PM calls for snap vote after family scandal

    However, polls show that with 20 to 30 percent of the 341,856 registered voters still undecided in the final days of the campaign, analysts had not ruled out a surprise change of government as a result of the fallout from the so-called Panama Papers revelations.

    Simon Busuttil, the 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.

    Corruption allegations

    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.

    "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.

    "However, in those few months the economy would have been damaged and jobs would have been lost," he said in defence of his decision to go to the polls.

    The premier's chief of staff and a government minister have separately admitted having their own, previously undeclared Panama-registered companies, following revelations from last year's massive data leak from the Mossack Fonseca legal firm based in the Central American country.

    READ MORE: Panama Papers - Why some of this is perfectly legal

    Muscat came under fire for not sacking the two men.

    The allegations against his inner circle have since broadened to include claims that kickbacks were paid in relation to an investment-based citizenship scheme, a gas supply deal with China, and bank licensing.

    Shortly before calling the election, Muscat asked a magistrate to look into the allegations against his wife and promised to quit if he was shown to have an undeclared offshore account.

    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.

    SOURCE: News agencies


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