By Chris Scicluna
VALLETTA (Reuters) - Parties running for election in Malta launched a 'tablet war' on Thursday, issuing rival promises to hand out iPad-style computers to school children if elected next month.
Putting education and technology at the center of the two-party race to lead the tiny island state, the opposition Labour Party promised a tablet computer for every eight-year-old school child.
Two hours later, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi unveiled his Nationalist Party's electoral program which included plans to give tablets to all school children aged between 5 and 16.
Bloggers in the euro zone's smallest country lampooned the politicians' largesse, likening the parties to both Father Christmas and Moses, the biblical figure who brought the word of God inscribed on tablets of stone.
Gonzi said his government had already given laptops to all teachers and put computerized white boards into all classrooms. Giving tablets to all children was the next logical step, he said, adding that pupils would in future use digital text books.
Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat told a news conference: "Tablets are key to fighting IT illiteracy."
Both parties said they planned to use private sector partners to deliver the computers. Muscat said his proposal would cost 1.5 million euros ($2 million) while Gonzi said costings for all of his party's proposals would be announced in the coming days.
The general election will be held on March 9, with Labour, which has promised to cut electricity bills, currently leading the Nationalists by 10 points in opinion polls.
The Nationalists, which have been in government since 1987 except for a 22-month Labour government between 1996 and 1998, is appealing to voters on its economic record, saying it has managed to avert the economic turmoil buffeting all other euro zone countries in the Mediterranean. ($1 = 0.7530 euros)
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)