Malta gets new PM after reporter murder outcry

VALLETTA (AFP) – Outsider Robert Abela became Malta’s new premier yesterday after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s downfall over the murder of an investigative journalist.

Abela, who is seen as representing continuity, was elected leader of the Labour Party, meaning he automatically takes the role of prime minister.

In the election run-up, Abela did not criticise Muscat, who announced 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.

Muscat, 45, resigned yesterday.

Prior to the election result, activist groups cast doubt on whether his successor would bring about real change in the Mediterranean country, which they say has been taken over by “criminals”.

Labour party leader candidates Chris Fearne (R) and Robert Abela embrace in Paola, Malta. PHOTO: AFP

Dubbed the “one woman WikiLeaks”, Caruana Galizia exposed corruption at the highest levels. She was killed by a car bomb on October 16, 2017 in an attack that made world headlines.

Less than an hour before her death, she wrote on her blog: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

It was expected that some 17,500 Labour voters would vote for the party’s first mid-term prime minister in history.

Two candidates were 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 Abela. Fearne had the backing of most Cabinet members but Abela had been closing the gap in the polls in the final week of the campaign, the Times of Malta said.

Neither referred to the Galizia killing in the run-up to the election. Both have insisted they represent continuity, highlighting their determination to keep the economy on its stellar trajectory.

“We have the reputation (in Malta) of being pirates. The reason is that a group of criminals have taken over our government,” Manuel Delia, a member of the activist group Repubblika, told AFP.

“We need change.”

Martina Darmanin, a 24-year-old academic, said the reporter’s killing had been “a shock”, and she had taken part in the regular demonstrations denouncing “the mafia in power”.