Malta's prime minister has called early elections following allegations that his wife holds secret offshore accounts in Panama. Joseph Muscat denies the accusations.
Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Monday announced early elections amid mounting corruption claims and opposition calls for his resignation.
Muscat called new elections for June 3, nearly 10 months early, at a May Day rally of his ruling Labor Party supporters.
The 43-year-old prime minister has been under pressure in recent weeks after popular blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia made claims that his wife, Michelle, owned an offshore shell company in Panama.
A magisterial inquiry has been launched into the issue. Owning offshore accounts is not illegal in Malta, but the revelations and investigation have created a political backlash.
Muscat has denied the claims that his wife received money from the daughter of energy-rich Azerbaijan's president through a company established by the law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The law firm was at the center of the Panama Papers released last year, which revealed secret tax havens set up by the rich and powerful.
Muscat's ruling Labor Party government was roiled when the Panama Papers showed that his chief of staff Keith Schembri and minister Konrad Mizzi owned secret offshore companies. The identity of the owner of a third offshore account remained elusive until last month's bombshell claim linking it to Muscat's wife.
Robust economy boosts support
"Everybody knows about the attacks made in the past few days on me and my family. I have nothing to fear because truth is on my side, and I am clean," Muscat told supporters.
"My duty, however, is not just to protect myself but also to safeguard my country, and I will not tolerate a situation where jobs are lost because of uncertainty. We cannot allow uncertainty to slow the rhythm of Malta's economic miracle."
Despite the swirling scandal, Muscat maintains support due to low unemployment of 4.1 percent, a government fiscal surplus and one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
Two opinion polls published in newspapers on Sunday gave the Labor Party a four point lead over the opposition center-right Nationalist Party, led by Simon Busuttil.
Busuttil, who has led calls for the prime minister's resignation, accused Muscat of calling an early election to "stay out of jail."
Muscat has led the EU's smallest member state since 2013, when he broke 15 years of conservative rule.
Malta currently holds the EU's rotating presidency until the end of June.
cw/tj (AP, dpa, Reuters)