In the election run-up, Abela did not criticise Muscat, who announced in December he would quit following widespread anger over his perceived efforts to protect friends and allies from a probe into the 2017 killing of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Muscat, 45, was set to resign later on Sunday.
Less than an hour before her death, she wrote on her blog: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”
It was expected that some 17,500 Labour voters would vote for the party’s first mid-term prime minister in history.
Fearne had the backing of most cabinet members but Abela had been closing the gap in the polls in the final week of the campaign, the Times of Malta said.Neither referred to the Galizia killing in the run-up to the election.
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Both have insisted they represent continuity, highlighting their determination to keep the economy on its stellar trajectory.
“We have the reputation (in Malta) of being pirates. The reason is that a group of criminals have taken over our government,” Manuel Delia, a member of the activist group Repubblika,said.
“We need change.”
Martina Darmanin, a 24-year old academic, said the reporter’s killing had been “a shock”, and she had taken part in the regular demonstrations denouncing “the mafia in power”.
“As a member of the EU we want and we deserve better than this: good governance, rule of law,” she said, adding that she was “fed up of hearing that I’m from a tax haven country”.
Repubblika plans to deliver a manifesto to the new prime minister calling for a clean up of politics and the economy, as well as a revamp of the constitution to guarantee a genuine separation of powers.
In an emotional farewell address on Friday, Muscat said he was “sorry” about the killing, the investigation into which he has been accused of hampering.
“I paid the highest price for this case to be solved under my watch,” he said.
The opposition Nationalist Party sharply criticised Muscat’s “surreal” speech, pointing out that it was Caruana Galiza who had paid that price.
Muscat’s fall from power followed daily protests led by supporters of the Caruana Galizia family, who accuse him among other things of shielding his chief of staff and childhood friend Keith Schembri, who has been implicated in the murder.
The journalist’s family had called for Muscat to step down immediately, but support from his party and his own popularity linked to Malta’s booming economy bought him time until the party election.
Three men are on trial for allegedly detonating the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, while a fourth powerful businessman Jorgen Fenech was charged as an accomplice after being detained as he tried to leave the country on his yacht.
Fenech’s arrest in November sparked the resignation of tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, who formerly served as energy minister, and Schembri.