Malta was an important cultic center for earth-mother worship in the
4th millennium B.C. Recent archeological work shows a developed religious
center there long before those of Sumer and Egypt. Malta's written history
began well before the Christian era. Originally the Phoenicians, and later
the Carthaginians, established ports and trading settlements on the island.
During the second Punic War (218 B.C.), Malta became part of the Roman
Empire. During Roman rule, in A.D. 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta
at a place now called St. Paul's Bay.
In 533 A.D. Malta became part of the Byzantine Empire and in 870 came
under Arab control. Arab occupation and rule left a strong imprint on Maltese
life, customs, and language. The Arabs were driven out in 1090 by a band
of Norman adventurers under Count Roger of Normandy, who had established
a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. Malta thus became an appendage
of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold
to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the
rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain.
In 1522 Suleiman II drove the Knights out of Rhodes. They dispersed
to their commanderies in Europe and after repeated requests for territory
to Charles V, in 1530 the Knights were given sovereignty of Malta under
the suzerainty of the Kings of Sicily. In 1523, a key date in Maltese history,
the islands were ceded by Charles V of Spain to the Order of the Knights
of St. John of Jerusalem. For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights
of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches,
gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works
of art and enhanced cultural heritage. In 1565 Suleiman the Magnificent
laid siege to Malta. After several months the strength of the Knights and
the Maltese population prevailed and the Turks were defeated. Over the
years, the power of the Knights declined, however, and their rule of Malta
ended with their peaceful surrender to Napoleon in 1798.
The people of Malta rose against French rule, which lasted two years,
and with the help of the British evicted them in 1800. In 1814, Malta voluntarily
became part of the British Empire. Under the United Kingdom, the island
became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean
fleet. During World War II, Malta survived relentless raids from German
and Italian military forces (1940-43). In recognition, King George VI in
1942 awarded the George Cross "to the island fortress of Malta--its people
and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period,
called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness." Malta obtained independence
on September 21, 1964.
Two parties dominate Malta's polarized and evenly divided politics--the
Nationalist Party, led by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, and the Malta
Labor Party, led by Alfred Sant. Elections invariably generate a widespread
voter turnout exceeding 96%. The margin between the two parties is so narrow
that a 52% share of the votes can still be considered a "landslide" for
the winning party. Prior to the May 1987 election, the Maltese constitution
was amended to ensure that the party that obtained more than 50% of the
popular vote would have a majority of seats in parliament and would thereby
form the government. The then-Labor Party government proposed this constitutional
amendment in exchange for Nationalist Party (in opposition at the time)
agreement to two other amendments to the constitution: The first stipulates
Malta's neutrality status and policy of nonalignment, and the second prohibits
foreign interference in Malta's elections.
The 1996 elections resulted in the election of the Labor Party by 8,000
votes to replace the Nationalists, who had won in 1987 and 1992. Voter
turnout was characteristically high at 96% with the Labor Party receiving
50.72%, the Nationalist party 47.8%, the Alternativa Demokratika (associated
with the Greens) 1.46%, and independent parties 0.02%. In 1998 the Labor
Party lost a parliamentary vote, leading the Prime Minister to call early
elections. The Nationalist Party was returned to office in September 1998
by a majority of 13,000 votes and holds a 5-seat majority in parliament.
Voter turnout was 95%. The Nationalist Party won 51.81%, the Labor Party
won 46.97%, Alternativa Demokratika 1.21%, and independent parties 0.01%.
A referendum held on March 8, 2003 resulted in a 54% majority vote in
favor of membership in the European Union (EU) with 91% voter turnout.
The opposition Labor Party, strongly opposed to EU membership and having
conducted a very strong No campaign, refused to recognize the result
of the referendum. The Prime Minister called an early election on April
12, 2003 for a definite mandate from the electorate. The Nationalists returned
to power with 51.79% and 35 seats, and EU membership was confirmed. The
Labor Party earned 47.51% and 30 seats, Alternativa Demokratika had 0.68%,
and independent candidates were negligible. Voter turnout was 97%. Malta
officially acceded to the European Union on May 1, 2004.
On February 10, 2004, the long-time leader of the Nationalist Party,
Eddie Fenech Adami, announced his intention to retire and resigned as leader
of the party. Following his election as Nationalist Party leader, Lawrence
Gonzi officially became the Prime Minister of Malta on March 22, 2004.