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.
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