Joseph Muscat was planning to step down as prime minister by next weekend before MP Robert Abela announced on Saturday he intended to contest the party leadership to pave the way for a probable two-horse race with Chris Fearne.

Pressure was growing on the party to hold an extraordinary general conference on Saturday with a vote held among delegates on Sunday to approve Mr Fearne so he could be sworn in as prime minister on December 16, PL sources said.

But the plan has been derailed and Dr Muscat is expected to stay on until the January 12 PL congress with the announcement that at least two contenders are now vying for his job.

“The prime minister has had enough and he knows he cannot continue operating in this environment. He is seeking an exit as soon as possible,” one senior PL source told The Sunday Times of Malta, on condition of anonymity.

Prime Minister is seeking an exit as soon as possible

“But since we now have a race between at least two candidates, it is logistically impossible to hold a leadership election by next weekend.”

Dr Muscat announced he intended to start the process for a new leader to be elected on January 8, amid unprecedented pressure to leave at once in the wake of the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder fallout. The calls have grown after indications that the economy is already feeling the pinch of the political unrest.

Mr Fearne was the first to announce his intentions on Friday, and his bid to become Labour’s next leader has been endorsed by well over half of the party’s parliamentary group, making him the clear favourite to succeed Dr Muscat.  

Minister Ian Borg and MEP Miriam Dalli, previously touted as candidates said they would steer away from the contest.

But Dr Abela on Saturday announced through a Facebook post that he would be submitting his nomination after hearing “the people’s love”. 

Asked why Dr Muscat had resisted calls to appoint Mr Fearne as interim prime minister until January, another party source said this could be perceived among delegates and members as potentially favouring the health minister for the post. It is not known if the prime minister has considered another MP to take over the reins for the next month, including this week’s EU Council summit. 

When contacted, Mr Fearne said he welcomed the contest with Dr Abela and any other contenders who planned to submit their interest to run by Wednesday’s deadline. He said even if he were to be uncontested, he would have still insisted on calling a party congress without further delay to enable the members to vote as well.

When contacted, Dr Abela said he had no comment to make for the time being.

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