Falkland Islands vote in referendum with eye on world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 10:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 10:42am

Falkland Islanders hold a referendum on Sunday and Monday to send a message to the world that they want to stay British, although Argentina has already dismissed the vote as illegal.

Residents of the windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic have hoisted British and Falklands flags and even created a giant “YES” made of four-wheel drives ahead of the vote.

In a move instigated by residents themselves, 1,672 eligible voters are being asked whether they want the Falklands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.

Argentina and Britain fought a brief but bloody war over the islands in 1982, and diplomatic tensions have escalated in recent years with the discovery of oil near the Falklands.

Britain has held the barren islands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims what it calls “Las Malvinas” are occupied Argentinian territory.

“We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Argentina would change overnight, but we hope it’ll be a strong message to them and to others,” legislative assembly member Jan Cheek, a sixth generation Falkland Islander, told news agency AFP.

Falklanders hope the outcome – and ideally a big turnout – will provide a slap in the face to an increasingly bellicose Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner.

They also 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.

In the Falklands capital Stanley, television footage showed islanders busy on the eve of the vote hanging bunting with the British Union Jack and the Falklands flag, which is deep blue with the Union Jack in one corner and a crest with a sheep in the middle.

“I’m quite proud to be a British overseas territory,” sheep farmer Ailsa Heathman told Britain’s ITV news.

At least 30 Land Rovers were lined up to spell “YES” on a patch of land opposite Stanley that has historically been used by Royal Navy vessels to commemorate their vessels.

The Penguin News, the local newspaper named after the flightless birds that are native to the Falklands, urged residents to take part in “grass roots” events for the vote.

“When you pass journalists open your window, smile, wave or give the thumbs up,” it wrote. “Face painting, especially with children, is encouraged. Please bring your flags.”

Argentina, 400 kilometres away, has branded the referendum “illegal” because, it claims, the islanders are “implanted” and thus do not have the right to self-determination.

The Argentinian foreign ministry said on Friday that the vote was “a British attempt to manipulate” the status of the archipelago.

The “attempt will not alter the essence of the Falklands or put an end to the sovereignty dispute”, it insisted.

London says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.

Opinion polls commissioned for British media organisations showed that attitudes in both Britain and Argentina were hardening.

A YouGov poll for Sky News published on Saturday found that 24 per cent of Argentinians surveyed said the Falkands was the most important foreign policy issue, against just one per cent of Britons.

But a ComRes poll for ITV news on Saturday showed that 77 per cent of Britons thought the Falklanders should decide the future of the islands, while 60 per cent said London should keep military options open against any threat to the Falklands.

On April 2, 1982, Argentina’s then-ruling junta invaded the Falklands, sparking a 74-day war with Britain which cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British troops.

If the invasion hardened the minds of the staunchly pro-British islanders further, Kirchner’s tub-thumping has done likewise for a whole new generation.

“The only people who can really decide what is in their best interests are the Falkland Islanders,” Dick Sawle, another of the islands’ eight elected legislative assembly members, told AFP.

Diplomatic friction between Argentina and Britain has intensified since 2010, when London authorised oil prospecting in the waters around the islands.

But Falkland Islanders suspect Kirchner’s often-emotional crusade is a ruse to divert domestic attention away from Argentina’s mounting economic problems.

Four-fifths of the rugged islands’ 2,563 residents live in the capital Stanley, with its pubs and red telephone boxes.

But polling stations in remote villages and even mobile voting booths will be used to make sure those in even the farthest-flung sheep farms get the chance to cast their ballots.

Several countries have sent official international observers.

Sukey Cameron, who represents the Falklands government in London, said they expect Buenos Aires to disregard the result but added that “at least, internationally, it will bring the islanders into the forefront”.