Joseph Muscat was tonight crowned leader of the Labour Party in yet another major step in a meteoric political career which saw its beginning just 16 years ago.

Labour Party delegates handed the 34-year-old father of twins a two to one majority in a run-off against former party deputy leader George Abela, bringing to an end the most keenly contested leadership election in the history of the Labour Party.

Dr Muscat’s appointment also closes the final chapter of the general elections 2008, which created the vacancy for Labour’s top job when Alfred Sant resigned.

Elected on a commitment to lead a “winning generation” Dr Muscat’s first task will be to unite a party which its own election defeat analysis showed to be rife with division.

He is not expected to become leader of the opposition until after the parliamentary summer recess, when a member of the Labour parliamentary group will have to resign so that Dr Muscat can be co-opted to the House. In so doing, Dr Muscat will have to resign from the European Parliament, to which he was sensationally elected in 2004 despite having previously campaigned against EU membership.

Dr Muscat has since declared himself to be a committed European, to the extent that he won the endorsement of Martin Schulz, the chairman of the socialist group of the European Parliament in a surprise move during his electoral campaign. He has also promised to make Malta “the best in Europe”.

Vote counting this evening, like yesterday, took place in a hall under paintings of three of the MLP’s four post-war leaders – Paul Boffa, Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. Every one of the MLP’s leaders since Dr Boffa has served as Prime Minister but Dr Muscat will be the youngest if Labour triumphs at the next general election.

The announcement of his victory was greeted with huge applause by the close to 900 Labour delegates who packed the lobby of party headquarters to witness the historic moment.

A total of 875 votes were cast in the second round of the election, four fewer than yesterday. Nine ballots were invalid and there was one abstention. Candidates needed a majority of 434. The votes for the two candidates were counted simultaneously. Dr Muscat won 574 votes and Dr Abela, 291.

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