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Vote for Malta PM as Muscat exits over reporter murder

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Valletta (AFP)

Malta's Labour Party was voting Saturday to elect its and the country's new leader after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's downfall over the murder of an investigative journalist.

Muscat, 45, said in December he would quit following widespread anger over his perceived efforts to protect friends and allies from a probe into the 2017 slaying of blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Some 17,500 Labour voters are expected to vote for the party's first mid-term prime minister in history.

Muscat was set to resign Sunday once the results of the election were in.

Two candidates are vying to take over as Labour leader and prime minister: deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne, a 56-year old surgeon, and 42-year-old lawyer Robert Abela.

Fearne, who has the backing of most cabinet members, is favourite to win, but Abela had been closing the gap in the polls in the final week of the campaign, the Times of Malta said.

Neither has criticised Muscat or referred to the Caruana Galizia murder in the run-up to the election. Both have insisted they represent continuity, highlighting their determination to keep the economy on its stellar trajectory.

In an emotional farewell address Friday, Muscat said he was "sorry" for the killing, the investigation into which he has been accused of hampering.

"I paid the highest price for this case to be solved under my watch," he said.

The opposition Nationalist Party slammed Muscat's "surreal" speech, pointing out that it was Caruana Galiza who had paid that price, according to the Malta Independent.

- 'Indelible stain' -

Muscat's fall from power followed daily protests led by supporters of the Caruana Galizia family, who accuse him among other things of shielding his chief of staff and childhood friend Keith Schembri, who has been implicated in the murder.

Dubbed the "one woman WikiLeaks", Caruana Galizia exposed corruption at the highest levels on the Mediterranean island.

She was killed in a car bomb explosion on October 16, 2017 in an attack that made world headlines.

Less than an hour before her death, Caruana Galizia wrote on her blog: "There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate."

The journalist's family had called for Muscat to step down immediately, but support from his party and his own popularity -- linked to Malta's booming economy which shot up 6.6 percent in 2018 -- bought him time until the election for a new party head.

Three men are on trial for allegedly detonating the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, while a fourth -- powerful businessman Jorgen Fenech -- was charged as an accomplice after being detained as he tried to leave the country on his yacht.

Fenech's arrest in November sparked the resignation of tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, who formerly served as energy minister, and Schembri.

The murder and probe "cast an indelible stain on Muscat and his administration", Malta Today wrote Saturday.

"Muscat's landslide, back-to-back, electoral triumphs in the midst of great economic success contrasted heavily with a prime minister who at the end of 2019 was met with a barrage of eggs, vegetables, and sonorous boos every time he exited parliament," it said.

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