Nationalist Party supporters have poured into the streets in wild and noisy celebrations of an election victory which a few hours earlier they thought they had lost.

Hours of tension evaporated at 9.30 p.m. when party general secretary Joe Saliba told cheering PN counting agents at Naxxar counting hall that the PN had won the election with a majority of 1,200 votes.

That means that although it is victorious, the PN has been battered, with the 12,000 majority it won in 2003 reduced to the slimmest margin since the elections of the first part of the 1950s.

Not that that mattered to the thousands of cheering supporters waving Maltese, PN and EU flags from cars which made their way with horns blaring to various traditional PN strongholds, notably Sliema.

Sunday was a day of huge emotions for the Maltese people. The omens did not look good for the Nationalist Party after it was announced that turnout on Saturday had slipped to 93.3 percent from 96 percent in 2003. The expectation was that the PN was the victim of this voter apathy.

By mid-morning Labour supporters were holding carcades in several localities, even before the sorting of votes had started.

That process started two hours late, at 12.30 p.m, but within half an hour it became evident that the PN was ahead, albeit by a razor thin margin. The parties took sample after sample of the votes in an attempt to make a prediction, but with the margin proving to be too narrow, they were unable to do so and they finally agreed to await the completion of the first count. Nonetheless, the PN lead was announced in the media and PN supporters took their turn to celebrate in the streets before Mr Saliba reined them in, saying celebrations were premature.

By 9 p.m. the body language of PN officials made it amply clear that victory was theirs, and Mr Saliba confirmed it in a one-sentence statement at 9.30 p.m., enough to have him carried shoulder high out of the counting hall.

MLP deputy leader Michael Falzon did not concede, but said the indications were what they were. He said the party would await the final first count of its candidates before taking a decision. The party's on-line paper admitted the defeat - which is the third in a row for the party, along with the EU referendum.

The PN appears to have won 49.3 percent of first count votes to Labour's 48.9 percent. The possibility of a third party having a candidate elected appears remote. That means the PN will have a parliamentary majority of at least one - compared to five in the last Parliament.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, the architect of the PN victory, has not made a statement yet. Nor has MLP leader Alfred Sant, whose political future now appears to be in serious doubt.

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