Joseph Muscat, Malta’s embattled prime minister, has announced his intention to step down, as a probe into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia stoked mounting public anger over alleged high-level official corruption.
In a televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, Mr Muscat said he would continue serving as prime minister until a new Labour party leader was selected in a process set to start on January 12.
Mr Muscat’s announcement came hours after thousands of Maltese citizens marched through the streets of the capital Valletta, calling for his resignation. Marchers carried placards reading “Killer government”, “Mafia” and accusing Mr Muscat of having “blood on [his] hands”.
In addressing the nation, Mr Muscat said he had promised two years ago that justice would be done in the case of the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
“From the very beginning, we made sure that the police had all the resources available,” he said. “Europol and other international services were also fully involved. Today I am here to tell you that I kept my word.”
Mr Muscat said before being elected that he always believed a prime minister should serve no more than two terms. “Now the time has come to practice what I believe in,” he said, adding that he had informed the Maltese president of his intention to resign next month.
Mr Muscat’s surprise announcement came two days before the European Parliament was due to send an emergency mission to Valletta this week to investigate the Muscat government’s handling of the murder case.
Dramatic developments in the two-year investigation into the 2017 car bomb killing of Caruana Galizia have triggered high-profile departures from Mr Muscat’s government.
The death of the journalist — who blogged about alleged official corruption in the country — shocked Europe and intensified concerns about a slide in the rule of law in Malta and other EU states. Keith Schembri, a top aide and friend of Mr Muscat who resigned as the premier’s chief of staff last week, has been linked to the probe.
He was questioned by police in connection with the murder before being released without charge. Mr Schembri has denied being the author of a letter that appeared to accuse a fellow minister of involvement in the murder, according to Maltese media reports on Sunday. “It is time for Muscat to go,” said Manuel Delia, one of the organisers of a big demonstration in Valletta. “Clearly there are massive conflicts of interest in his cabinet and the situation is untenable. This is no way to run a country.”
Maltese police and representatives of Mr Schembri could not be reached for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
Three men previously charged with carrying out the killing have also denied any wrongdoing.
MEPs have the power vote to trigger EU disciplinary proceedings against states over alleged violations of the rule of law. Existing procedures have been launched against Hungary and Poland.
The European Commission declined to comment on the Caruana Galizia murder probe but said it had consistently said it expected an “independent and thorough investigation and that the persons responsible for this crime must be brought to justice”.
“We need to send a clear signal to all journalists: it is safe to work in Europe,” a commission spokesperson said on Sunday. “If journalists are silenced, so is democracy.”
Yorgen Fenech, one of Malta’s most prominent businessman, was charged on Saturday night with involvement in the assassination of Caruana Galizia.
He has denied any wrongdoing. Mr Fenech faces questions over his relationship with both Mr Schembri and with Konrad Mizzi, who resigned as tourism minister last week. Mr Mizzi has also denied any wrongdoing.
The growing fallout from the murder probe since police arrested a suspected middleman in the killing last month has triggered nightly protests outside Mr Muscat’s office, while other ministers have been mobbed by angry protesters.
“The government needs to change,” said Anthony Grech, a 69-year-old pensioner. “The government is full of mafia. We want it to go because it is not working well.” Opposition politicians have called for the resignation of Mr Muscat, who has previously denied any wrongdoing in his handling of the murder case.