Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has announced he will step down in January over alleged links of his former top aide to the murder of a Maltese investigative journalist.
"I will write to the President of the Labour Party so that the process for a new Leader is set for 12th January 2020. On that day I will resign as a Leader of the Labour Party. In the days after I will resign as a Prime Minister," he said in a statement on Sunday evening.
It came after the ruling Labour Party parliamentary group on Sunday expressed “unanimous support” for Mr Muscat and “all decisions he will be taking.”
Maltese media had reported that Mr Muscat, who was expected to resign imminently, might stay in office till January, when a party congress must elect a new leader.
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Party delegates will initially vote on January 8 before members choose between the two last standing candidates on January 18.
Mr Muscat has been under increasing pressure to quit since his former chief of staff Keith Schembri was last week linked to the 2017 killing of journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Mr Schembri was among the government members targeted by her investigative reporting. The former chief of staff, who resigned last week, was arrested in the probe but later released.
He denies any wrongdoing. Labour lawmakers called for a meeting at the prime minister’s summer residence in Girgenti on Sunday morning to discuss Mr Muscat’s expected departure as prime minister.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the Labour parliamentary group reaffirmed its full confidence in him. The statement made no mention of a discussion of the premier’s resignation, but agreed that the murder case should be debated in Parliament next week.
Thousands of people held a protest in Valletta on Sunday afternoon to urge Mr Muscat, who was elected prime minister in 2013, to leave immediately.
According to Maltese media reports, on Friday Mr Muscat informed associates he intended to step down as soon as businessman Yorgen Fenech was charged with Caruana Galizia’s murder.
Mr Fenech, who had been arrested earlier this month and then released, was charged with complicity in the murder on Saturday evening. He pleaded not guilty to that charge. Mr Fenech was charged after the government turned down his request for immunity from prosecution in return for revealing information about the murder plot and alleged corruption involving Mr Schembri and former Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.
Mr Mizzi denies the charges. Mr Fenech was identified last year as being the owner of a mysterious Dubai-registered company, 17 Black. The company was listed in the Panama Papers – confidential documents that revealed how the wealthy and powerful use tax havens to get around the law.
Caruana Galizia had written about 17 Black eight months before her death, alleging it had links to both Mr Schembri and Mr Mizzi, who has also resigned last week following the recent developments in the case.