VALLETTA, Malta: Maltese vote on Saturday for legislative elections that should easily renew the outgoing government in the context of a Russian-Ukrainian war that risks weakening the post-pandemic recovery of the small import-dependent Mediterranean island.
Labor Prime Minister Robert Abela is campaigning after winning the party’s leadership vote two years ago to replace Joseph Muscat, who resigned following protests sparked by the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
A Malta Today poll credits Labor with 53.3% of the vote against 44.6% for Nationalists.
Mr. Abela campaigned on how he handled the coronavirus outbreak and an economy that collapsed in 2020 but rebounded strongly last year.
In a cafe in the port of Valletta’s capital, Caroline Lapira says she won’t hesitate to vote for head of government. Government assistance during the pandemic has helped her survive long months without foreign tourists.
“One time the prime minister came here, I thanked him, without him I don’t know what would have happened,” she told AFP as she served a Spritz.
End of golden passports
A tiny Mediterranean island nation, a member of the European Union since 2004 and the Eurozone since 2008, Malta has few natural resources but has built a thriving economy based mainly on tourism, financial services and gambling.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month has cast a shadow over the country, pushing up the price of commodities that can be costly for a state so dependent on imports.
The government was forced to suspend the program of “golden passports” for Russians and Belarusians, depriving it of an important source of funding (it brought in 1.1 billion euros in a short decade).
The government has already allocated 200 million euros to mitigate the impact of the crisis, which is on top of another 200 million already allocated to mitigate the effects of post-pandemic energy price increases.
Analysts believe the uncertainty will only strengthen Mr. Abela’s position, although voter turnout is expected to be slightly below its usual level of over 90%.
“Robert Abela has led in a difficult situation and therefore I think he has a huge amount of support,” said Andrew Azzopardi, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Welfare at the University of Malta. Between the conflict and Covid, “people don’t want to make things worse by adding political instability to it.”
However, “there is this cloud, there is this dark shadow over the Labor Party” and its connection to the rule of law, notes George Zammit, lecturer in public policy at the University of Malta.
Mr. Abela took office in January 2020 after Mr. Muscat stepped down on suspicion of protecting his friends and allies from the investigation into the murder of journalist Caruana Galizia.
She was investigating high-level corruption when she was killed by a car bomb near her home on October 16, 2017, sparking outrage around the world.
A public inquiry, the findings of which were published last year, holds the state “responsible for the murder for creating a climate of impunity.”
Mr. Abela, who was absent from Mr. Muscat’s cabinet, has since introduced reforms to democratize institutions, including abolishing the prime minister’s privilege to appoint judges and the police chief.
“He could have done a lot more. They weren’t worried” after the murder of a journalist, irritated Johanna, a 61-year-old shopkeeper with a Nationalist sympathizer who prefers not to be named for fear of damaging his business.
And there is indeed room for improvement: in 2021, often accused of being a tax haven, Malta was graylisted by the FATF, the Paris-based intergovernmental organization that helps fight crimes related to the international financial system. .
Marisa Xuereb, president of the local chamber of commerce, hopes that Malta will soon be removed from this list. She calls the perception of widespread corruption on her island “very unfair”. “It’s only for a minority,” she says.