Malta's opposition Labour party has won a general election for the first time in over 15 years, with leader Joseph Muscat claiming a "landslide victory" Sunday in the eurozone's smallest member.
Early results based on a sample of ballots from Saturday's vote showed Labour ahead with 55 percent to 43 percent for the incumbent Nationalist Party led by outgoing Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.
The provisional results suggest Labour could clinch one of the most comfortable majorities in the 65-seat parliament since the tiny Mediterranean island became independent in 1964.
"I wasn't expecting such a landslide victory for Labour. We must all remain calm, tomorrow is another day," Muscat, a 39-year-old former journalist, said.
Gonzi immediately conceded defeat and vowed to step down from the party leadership as a result of his poor showing.
"I personally take full responsibility for this result and I will not seek reelection when the party chooses its new leadership," he said at a press conference.
"The Nationalist Party needs to begin a reform process and at the same remain rooted in its values," he said, adding that future prime minister Muscat deserved respect as he prepared to tackle new national challenges.
The tiny island state is a rare example of a eurozone state with low unemployment, respectable economic growth and solid public finances.
The unemployment rate is 6.0 percent and, according to the latest estimates, the country clocked 1.5 percent economic growth last year.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated Muscat and wished him "every success" while Martin Schulz, the head of the European parliament, said Malta could "look forward to continued good economic growth."
Gonzi, who has been at the helm of the Nationalist Party since 2004, had told the electorate throughout the nine-week campaign to judge him on his achievements, although he has admitted to mistakes.
Muscat has run a slick US-style campaign calling for change, charging that the outgoing government's economic figures were wrong and accusing his rival of failing to ensure stability by ruling with a one-seat majority.
Originally an opponent to Malta joining the European Union, Muscat has since changed his views and is a former member of the European Parliament.
Malta has not had a Labour government in 25 years -- apart from a 22-month stint when it ruled between 1996 and 1998.
Despite Malta's minuscule size, just 316 square kilometres (122 square miles), the political divide between the Labour and the Nationalist parties has been there for most of its history.
In 1964, the Nationalists achieved independence from British rule but in 1979, it was long-term leader Dom Mintoff's Labour government who pushed British troops off the island.
Even religious feasts in Malta are divided politically.
One village close to the capital Valletta, has two bands -- one in blue and the other in red, the colours of the two main political parties.
Muscat's vision is to do away with this political divide, saying the country should be more united and calling for an end to "tribal politics".