Malta votes in general election

Malta took to the polls on Saturday in a general election expected to bring the opposition Labour party to power in the eurozone's smallest member state for the first time in more than 15 years.

The party's 39-year-old leader Joseph Muscat, who has promised to unite the Mediterranean island and boost its economy, is ahead by 12 points in the polls against his rival, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of the Nationalist Party.

Polls close at 2100 GMT and vote counting will begin on Sunday.

The tiny island state is a rare example of a eurozone state with low unemployment, respectable economic growth and solid public finances.

The unemployment rate is 6.0 percent and, according to the latest estimates, the country clocked 1.5 percent economic growth last year.

Muscat has run a slick US-style campaign calling for change, accusing his rival of failing to ensure stability by ruling with a one-seat majority.

Originally an opponent to Malta joining the European Union, Muscat has since changed his views and is a former member of the European Parliament.

Malta joined the European Union in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2008.

Gonzi and Muscat both cast their votes in their respective polling centres on Saturday without making any comments to waiting journalists.

There are a total of 326,483 eligible voters.

Gonzi, who has been leading the country since 2004, insisted throughout the nine-week electoral campaign that there was no need for a change in direction as his political adversary is advocating.

Muscat's campaign pledges include plans to reduce water and electricity bills, which are said to be among the most expensive in Europe, by 25 per cent. His party has been in opposition for the best part of the past two decades.

According to the latest opinion polls, Labour led the Nationalist Party by 12 percentage points.

The people of Malta are voting for the 65 members of parliament to represent them.

Malta has a single transferable voting system, which means that voters pick their preferred candidate directly. The party with the largest number of first-preference votes will govern.