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, 1,672 eligible voters are being asked whether they want the Falkland Islands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.
The ‘yes’ verdict, due overnight, is not in doubt but islanders hope the strength of the democratic vote will make their wishes crystal-clear in an uncontestable way.
Buenos Aires has dismissed the vote as meaningless, claiming it is “a British attempt to manipulate” the status of the remote 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. No matter what Argentina says, the rest of the world will not ignore it.”
Homes and shops in the capital Stanley are festooned with posters and flags, both the British 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”.
Elsby, a 57-year-old Welsh doctor who moved to the Falklands on a two-year contract in 1990 and never left, queued up to vote in Stanley on Sunday in what he called “the worst weather for months”.
Up to 90 people were waiting in the rain outside the single polling station in the town an hour after it opened, witnesses said.
The Falklands are a barren archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean which rarely feel warm due to the strong winds which buffet the islands.
The referendum barely featured in the British press, with only a few newspapers carrying brief reports or photographs from the overseas territory.
Bookmaker Ladbrokes called the result “the biggest certainty in political betting history” but Argentina said the vote had no legal standing and would not affect its claim.
Argentina seized the islands in 1982 but were ousted after a short but bloody war.
Britain has held the Falklands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims the islands, called “Las Malvinas” in Spanish, are occupied Argentinian territory.
Diplomatic tensions have risen in recent years, fuelled by the discovery of oil near the Falklands, with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner ramping up her demands for the islands.
The ambassador to Britain, Alicia Castro, this weekend branded the referendum “utterly meaningless” from the perspective of international law.
“Its predictable outcome neither ends the dispute nor affects Argentina’s unquestionable rights,” she said.
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.
London, an even further 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) away, says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.
Islanders 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.
International observers, many of them from South America, 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).
Four-fifths of the 2,563 permanent residents live in Stanley, with its pubs and red telephone boxes, but several hundred are scattered in sheep farms and settlements across the rugged area beyond, known collectively as “Camp”.
There are four static polling stations — one in Stanley and three in other settlements — while several mobile polling booths were transported around the islands by plane and by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]