Nearly half of the eligible voters in Malta had already cast their ballots in general elections seven hours after polls opened early Saturday. ( dpa )
Voters braved the unusual downpour for this time of the year, and by 2:00 pm local time, no less than 45 per cent of the electorate had voted, according to the Electoral Commission. Just over 300,000 are eligible to vote.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of the ruling Nationalist Party (PN) was among the first to vote in his hometown of Marsascala. As he shook hands with well-wishers, he said: "I'm confident that our message came across, especially because it was based on the results we achieved over the last five years."
Labour Party leader Alfred Sant Sant described the five-week electoral campaign as clean and calm and said no one had used dirty tricks. His party has been accused of using underhand tactics to blemish the Nationalists' reputation, amid claims of corruption.
The leader of Alternattiva Demokratika (Green Party) Harry Vassallo had a different view. He told reporters that the election had been preceded by the biggest mud-slinging campaign since 1992. An arrest warrant was issued against Vassallo on Wednesday in a case concerning value-added tax (VAT) returns. He denies any wrongdoing and has questioned the timing of the warrant.
Over 90 per cent of voters are expected to have cast their votes when polling stations close at 10:00 pm. Unofficial results are expected at around midday on Sunday.
The result is expected to be the tightest in years, with polls showing the PN running neck-and-neck with the Labour Party.
Campaigning over five weeks saw a first few days of constructive criticism and debate degenerate into accusations of corruption, mud- slinging and below-the-belt jabs.
The outcome of the election could well depend on the performance of the small Alternattiva Demokratika, which could snatch a few vital votes from Gonzi's PN, perhaps enough to tilt the balance.
If so, power would go to Sant, a 60-year-old Harvard graduate who is known for his no-nonsense style of politics, as much as for his lack of charm. During a 22-month stint as prime minister in the late 1990s, Sant froze Malta's bid for European Union membership. However, his party has now taken a neutral stand on Europe.
Election fever has gripped the island in the last few weeks, with tens of thousands attending the two main parties' mass meetings on Thursday night.
Around 95 per cent of the electorate normally comes out to cast their vote in Malta, the highest turnout in Europe.