New Malta PM pledges rule of law after journalist murder 'storm'

Valletta (AFP) –


Malta's incoming prime minister promised Sunday to strengthen the rule of law after the "storm" caused by the probe into the murder of a journalist that toppled his predecessor.

Outsider Robert Abela, 42, elected leader of the Labour party on Saturday and set to become the Mediterranean country's new prime minister after Joseph Muscat's fall from grace, admitted that "mistakes" had been made.

Muscat, 45, who was set to resign on Monday, has been forced to step down over accusations he interfered in the investigation of the brutal 2017 slaying of blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb explosion.

"I am determined to keep what is good and change what is bad," Abela told supporters at a victory rally.

"I promise to work with this parliament to continue to strengthen the rule of law and good governance," he said.

Beyond that, his plan was largely to ensure "continuity", particularly in terms of the economy, which flourished under Muscat's tenure and earned him bumper popularity ratings despite the shadow of the murder probe.

"The ship is now back on an even keel after the storm. We need to move forward," he said.

Abela made no reference to the Caruana Galizia killing in the run-up to the election, and those calling for justice for the blogger said they had little hope he would clean up a government dogged by corruption allegations.

"The king is dead, long live the king," tweeted Caruana Galizia's son Paul.

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

- 'Held to account' -

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.

Caruana Galizia, described as a "one-woman WikiLeaks", had accused Mezzi and Schembri of corruption.

The activist movements Repubblika and Occupy Justice have called for the new prime minister to "clean up" the country, which is home to gambling companies and 70,000 offshore companies.

Lawyer Abela, who is married and has a seven-year-old daughter, is relatively new to politics, becoming a member of parliament for the first time in 2017.

But he has experience of the halls of power, having worked as a legal consultant to the outgoing government.

Critics said his speech showed he was a "carbon-copy" of Muscat.

David Casa, an MEP and member of the opposition Nationalist Party, tweeted that Abela's "first move since being chosen as PM is literally to take to the stage holding and hugging Konrad Mizzi".

"This is not going to end well," he said.

The head of Reporters Without Borders UK, Rebecca Vincent, said Abela "has his work cut out for him" and promised she and other human rights campaigners would "hold this administration to account in ensuring full justice for Daphne".