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Malta opposition eyes return to power
March 04, 2013 , 10 : 59 am
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Supporters celebrate after an address by party leader and Malta's Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi at a mass rally. Elections will take place in Malta with the opposition Labour Party ahead of the governing Nationalist Party. Photo - REUTERS
Malta's opposition leader Joseph Muscat sought to consolidate his advantage Sunday over embattled Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi a week before the tiny Mediterranean island holds elections.
Gonzi's Nationalist Party (PN) has ruled Malta since 1987, except for a 22-month stint in the 1990s, but Muscat's Labour Party (PL) is leading by 12 percentage points in the latest polls -- though many of the country's 332,000 voters remain undecided or have shunned pollsters' questions.
As they have each Sunday since the campaign began on January 7, the parties rallied their supporters in two mass meetings, Muscat calling for change and Gonzi threatening it could spell the end of economic stability.
In the central town of Floriana, Muscat urged voters to choose a "Malta for All", the slogan of a campaign inspired by US President Barack Obama.
"This choice is historical in itself because it discards the politics of colours, of red and blue, and sees the birth of one united nation. It is a clear choice between the past that divides and a future that unites," he said.
Since he took over the party in 2008, Muscat, 39, has sought to broaden Labour's membership and buried its old symbolic colour red. During its last stint in power -- 22 months between 1996 and 1998 -- the party introduced no less than 33 new taxes. It is basing its current campaign on a promise to lower energy rates by 25 percent.
Gonzi, whose own slogan is "A Secure Future", has built his campaign around economic performance, saying he protected the economy when other European countries were in dire straits.
"We know we have made mistakes but we can come to you with our heads held high because we delivered," he told supporters in the central town of Sliema.
"Malta never had such a high level of employment, four of the last five years saw records in tourism and the deficit has been reigned in. We created 20,000 jobs during the economic turmoil so all we need is your vote to continue in this path."
Malta's unemployment rate is around six percent and economic growth was 1.7 percent last year. Malta, which has a population of around 450,000 people and is halfway between Italy and North Africa, joined the eurozone in 2008.
Gonzi has been in office since 2004. He was forced to call elections slightly ahead of schedule after one of the government's own lawmakers went against his party on a December budget vote, robbing it of its one-seat majority.
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