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Malta PM hopes to ride EU success

Malta's PM hopes to tap into the pro-EU vote when he goes to the polls next month
Malta's PM hopes to tap into the pro-EU vote when he goes to the polls next month

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VALLETTA, Malta (Reuters) -- Maltese Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami Monday called a general election for April 12, just four days before the Mediterranean island is due to join nine other countries in signing the European Union accession treaty.

The election is seen as the final, decisive test of whether the country of 400,000 will take its place as the smallest country in the European Union.

Although the "yes" campaign won 53.6 percent of the valid votes cast in a referendum on EU membership Saturday, opposition leader Alfred Sant, whose Labor Party is against membership, refused to concede defeat, arguing that the "yes" tally amounted to only 48 percent of total registered voters.

Before the referendum the Labor Party had urged its supporters to vote "no," spoil their ballot or not vote at all.

Turnout Saturday was 91 percent, slightly down from 95 percent at the last general elections in 1998.

"The 'yes' vote clearly won on Saturday and I am committed to implementing the will of the people," Fenech Adami said earlier Monday at a news conference.

But Labor insists that, if returned to power, it would seek a partnership with the EU rather than membership. It argues that complying with EU regulations would dent Malta's competitiveness, raise prices and cause unemployment.

The government argues that, as a small country with no natural resources and which already has Europe as its main market for exports and tourism, Malta is naturally destined for EU membership.

Fenech Adami swept to power in 1998 with a majority of nearly 52 percent -- large by local standards -- after Sant's two-year old government collapsed.

This will be 69-year-old Fenech Adami's sixth general election at the helm of the Nationalist Party.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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