Changing of political guard in Malta aims to rebuild trust

VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — Two contenders for Malta’s next leader are pledging to work to restore the country’s reputation abroad as the beleaguered prime minister of the European Union nation prepares to step down.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was set to deliver his final address to the nation Friday evening. Muscat announced Dec. 1 that he would resign as leader of the ruling Labor Party and prime minister amid increasing demands at home and abroad for accountability in the car bomb assassination of an investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Muscat, who is halfway through his second term in the prime minister’s office, delayed his resignation by six weeks to let the Labor Party go through the process of electing a new leader.

His promise to step down has failed to quell anti-government protests by Maltese angry over links between Muscat’s office and the 2017 bomb blast that killed Caruana Galizia, whose anti-corruption reporting targeted members of the government.

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A deputy premier and a lawmaker are vying to replace him. The one picked to be Labor’s new leader in a party election on Saturday will become prime minister, and Muscat would ill step aside as premier within days.

Both candidates — Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and lawmaker Robert Abela — say they will work to regain the Maltese people’s confidence in the government by upholding the rule of law.

But each candidate has stopped short of criticizing Muscat even as they promise to heal the country’s reputation. Labor has a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Concerned European Union lawmakers who visited Malta after the journalist’s slaying expressed concerns about the functioning of the tiny island nation’s police and judicial systems.

Three men have been charged with murder for allegedly triggering the powerful car bomb that killed 53-year-old Caruana Galizia as she drove near her home on Oct. 16, 2017. No trial date has been set.

Days before Muscat announced he was stepping down both as party leader and prime minister, his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested and questioned in connection with Caruana Galizia’s killing.

Schembri was later released but remains under investigation.

On Nov. 30, a day before Muscat told the nation he would leave office, a prominent Maltese businessman, Yorgen Fenech, was arraigned on charges that included complicity in the murder. He has pleaded innocent.

A hearing is expected later this month before a court decides whether Fenech should stand trial.

Loose financial and banking rules have made Malta an attractive place for money launderers.

The Panama Papers leak of documents revealed that Schembri and a then-Cabinet minister, Konrad Mizzi, secretively opened companies in Panama. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

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