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Malta ruling party members vote to elect new leader and PM

FILE PHOTO: Leadership contenders Robert Abela and Chris Fearne attend outgoing Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat's final speech at the party's Congress before the election of a new party leader at the Corradino Sports Pavilion in Paola, Malta January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Members of Malta’s ruling Labour Party voted on Saturday to elect a new leader to succeed Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who is stepping down following an investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Muscat is not directly implicated in the case but announced his resignation last month after testimony by the self-confessed middleman in the murder plot linked people in his inner circle to attempts at an alleged cover-up.

Muscat became leader of the Labour Party in 2008 and won two consecutive terms as prime minister in parliamentary elections in 2013 and 2017.

During his tenure, he transformed Malta’s economy to make it the best performer in the European Union. He also ushered in radical social reforms including same-sex marriage, unthinkable in the Catholic country up to some years ago.

But his premiership was also dogged by allegations of corruption, with Caruana Galizia repeatedly denouncing alleged wrongdoing in the worlds of both politics and business before she was killed in a car bomb.

Saturday’s vote is between former paediatric surgeon Chris Fearne, 56, who serves as both deputy prime minister and minister of health, and lawyer Robert Abela, 42, who was appointed by Muscat as a consultant to the cabinet.

Both men are relative political newcomers, having first been elected to parliament in 2013 and 2017 respectively.

Muscat continues to be widely popular in his party and gave a farewell speech to supporters in a packed sports hall late on Friday. He said he would back neither of the two contestants and pledged to stay on as a member of Malta’s parliament.

Some 17,500 paid-up Labour Party members are eligible to vote on Saturday. Voting will continue until 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) with the result due overnight. The new leader is expected to be sworn in as prime minister sometime next week.

Reporting by Christopher Scicluna; Editing by Crispian Balmer, Jane Merriman and Frances Kerry