Monday March 11, 2013
Falklands to vote on last day of referendum on future
LONDON: Falkland Islanders were to vote Monday on the final day of a two-day referendum designed to make clear their staunch desire to remain British despite Argentina's increasingly bellicose sovereignty claims.
In a move instigated by residents themselves, the 1,672 eligible voters are being asked whether they want the Falkland Islands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.
An overwhelming "yes" result, due overnight, is not in doubt but islanders hope the clear verdict will make their wishes crystal-clear to the world in an uncontestable way.
Buenos Aires has dismissed the vote as meaningless and illegal, claiming it is "a British attempt to manipulate" the status of the remote South Atlantic archipelago.
"What we're trying to do is send a message," Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands legislative assembly, told AFP by telephone.
"Argentina are totally ignoring us. But the rest of the world will see it for what it is - the democratic view of the people."
Four-fifths of the islands' 2,563 permanent residents live in the capital Stanley, with its pubs and red telephone boxes.
For the referendum, homes and shops in the tiny town are festooned with posters and flags, both Britain's Union Jack and the deep blue Falklands standard, which features the Union Jack and the islands' crest - a sheep, a wooden ship and the motto "Desire the Right".
Britain has held the Falklands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims the barren islands, called "Las Malvinas" in Spanish, are occupied Argentinian territory.
Argentina seized the islands in 1982 but was ousted after a short but bloody war.
Argentina, 400 kilometres (250 miles) away, has branded the referendum "illegal" because it claims the islanders are an "implanted" population and thus do not have the right to self-determination.
Residents hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.
The United States, for example, has studiously avoided taking sides on the issue despite its close ties with Britain.
Marlene Short, who runs a diner in Stanley with her husband Richard, moved to the Falklands in 1989 from Saint Helena, another British overseas territory in the South Atlantic.
"I'm pretty sure that everyone who's able will turn out and vote," the 43-year-old told AFP.
"Argentina will always have their views, but today is to try and convince anyone that is doubtful as to whether we remain Britain that today we desperately want to."
International observers, from Argentina's neighbours Chile and Uruguay, plus Mexico, are monitoring the polls, due to open between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm (1300 and 2100 GMT).
The referendum is a logistical challenge, taking place across an inhospitable territory of 12,000 square kilometres (4,700 square miles).
Though most Falkland Islanders live in Stanley, several hundred are scattered in isolated sheep farms and tiny settlements across the picturesque, rugged countryside, known as "Camp".
There are four static polling stations: one in Stanley and three in other settlements.
However, mobile polling booths were being transported around the islands by a five-seater plane and several four-wheel-drive vehicles rumbling along the rough tracks with an observer in the passenger seat and a ballot box in the back.
Some British newspapers carried pictures and reports on the referendum on the islands, some 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) away.
The Daily Mail said there was "never a chance" that Buenos Aires would respect the Falkland Islanders' wishes.
"If sabre-rattling Argentine politicians care nothing for democracy, they must be left in no doubt that it matters passionately to Britain," the tabloid said.
"Whatever the islanders decide... this country must stand ready to defend them again."
The Daily Express said Argentina should have sent observers to the referendum as "it still has a lot to learn about freedom".
Hopefully a landslide outcome "will remind the world that British sovereignty over the islands is preserved by democratic consent and has nothing to do with imperial ambition", it said.
Bookmaker Ladbrokes called the result "the biggest certainty in political betting history" but Buenos Aires said the vote had no legal standing and would not affect its claim.
Diplomatic tensions have risen since 2010, fuelled by the discovery of oil near the Falklands, with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner ramping up her often emotional demands for the islands.
London says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it. - AFP