Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been in power since 2013
Valletta (AFP) - Malta's outgoing Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Friday said he was "paying the highest political price" for failing to solve a journalist's killing, the investigation into which he has been accused of hampering.
"I am sorry for the (Daphne) Caruana Galizia murder," Muscat said in his farewell speech to Labour party supporters ahead of a party vote on his successor.
"She hurt me too but I paid the highest price for this case to be solved under my watch," an emotional Muscat said.
Muscat, 45, said in December he would quit following widespread anger over his perceived efforts to protect friends and allies from an investigation into the brutal 2017 slaying of investigative blogger Caruana Galizia.
Muscat said he would remain an MP and involve himself in civil rights and promoting sport for youths.
"You won't see much of me," said Muscat, who once bathed in the glow of the country's booming economy and was re-elected by a landslide to serve a second term in 2017.
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.
Dubbed the "one woman WikiLeaks", Caruana Galizia exposed corruption at the highest levels on the Mediterranean island.
She was killed in a car bomb explosion on October 16, 2017 in an attack that made headlines around the world.
Less than an hour before her death, Caruana Galizia wrote on her blog: "There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate."
- 'Save Malta's reputation' -
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 growth which shot up 6.6 percent in 2018 -- bought him wiggle room until the election for a new party head.
His final weeks saw him travel to Rome to meet Pope Francis, to Bethlehem for Christmas Mass, to Dubai on a family holiday and to London, where Maltese media said he met with a high-flying lawyer, possibly over the Caruana Galizia case.
Two candidates are vying to take over from Muscat as Labour leader and prime minister: deputy prime minister and health minister Chris Fearne, a 56-year old surgeon, and 42-year-old lawyer Robert Abela.
Neither has criticised Muscat or referred to the Caruana Galizia murder in the run-up to the election. Both have insisted they represent continuity, highlighting their determination to keep the economy on its stellar trajectory.
Some 17,500 Labour voters are expected to go to the ballots on Saturday to elect the party's first mid-term prime minister in history.
"If the new prime minister really wants stability within the country, and if he wants to save Malta's reputation, he needs to work to change the sick mentality of 'everything goes'," activist Martina Farrugia said at a protest this week.
Three men are on trial for allegedly planting and detonating the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, while a fourth -- prominent businessman Jorgen Fenech -- was charged as an accomplice after being arrested in November as he tried to leave the country on his yacht.
Fenech's arrest sparked the resignation of tourism minister Konrad Mizzi, who formerly served as energy minister, and Schembri.
- 'Complicit?' -
Caruana Galizia had reported on a mysterious Dubai-based company named 17 Black, which she alleged was connected to Maltese politicians.
Malta's anti-money laundering watchdog later identified Fenech as its owner and discovered emails showing Panama companies owned by Mizzi and Schembri stood to receive two million euros from 17 Black for unspecified services.
Fenech was co-owner of a group that won a large energy concession from the Maltese state.
The businessman has accused Schembri of being the "real mastermind" behind Daphne's murder.
The former chief of staff was briefly arrested but released without charge in November, fuelling allegations of police corruption or incompetence, and further meddling by the government in the murder investigation.
Journalist consortium the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named Muscat its Person of the Year in 2019 for allegedly allowing criminality and corruption to flourish, and in many cases go unpunished, under his leadership.