Land Rovers and airplanes are being readied to carry ballots from eight different islands as the Falklands prepare to vote on their status as a self-governing overseas territory of the U.K.
The islands’ government called a referendum for March 10 and 11 to reinforce its stance that the inhabitants want to stay British in the face of increasing claims from Argentina, which says the islands were wrongly taken from it in the 19th century and whose forces were expelled from the archipelago after invading in 1982.
“I hope the referendum sends a very clear message to the world that the Falkland Islanders wish to remain as an overseas territory of the U.K. with the right to determine their own future,” Roger Edwards, a member of the islands’ legislative assembly, said in a telephone interview from the main settlement, Stanley. “People are very hacked off with the attitude of Argentina, with their belligerence and economic blockade of the islands.”
International observers will accompany five mobile polling stations as they make between six and 11 stops to collect votes from remote areas on the archipelago, nearly 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) from Britain, as the Falklands authorities seek to avoid any accusation that the vote is not legitimate. The Argentine government has dismissed the referendum as “irrelevant” and rebuffed attempts by the islanders to start negotiations.
“We’re very conscious that we’re going to be observed worldwide,” Beth Reid, the islands’ registrar general, who’s responsible for the logistics of the voting, said in a telephone interview. “We’d want it to work properly anyway, but we are very aware of the interest.”
Two days have been allocated for voting to cover the possibility that the weather grounds the planes carrying votes to Stanley for the count on March 11. Flights were postponed yesterday as a result of heavy fog and a repeat on Sunday and Monday could lead to polling being continued for a third day.
The question on the ballot paper is: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?” If the islanders vote no in the referendum, there will be a consultation before a further vote to decide on alternative arrangements.
The dispute over the ownership of the islands has lasted since their settlement by the French in 1764 and the British in 1766. Spain forced the French colony off the archipelago to establish its own garrison, and then in 1771, Spain ceded to Britain the right to have a colony there, which it later abandoned.
Louis Vernet, a Frenchman who had become a citizen of Argentina, established a new colony in the Falklands in 1826. He sought approval from both Argentina and Britain to do so. Five years after that, he provoked the first naval assault on the islands, when he arrested three American ships for unauthorized fishing. The USS Lexington and USS Warren raided the settlement and carried the leaders off in chains as pirates.
In 1843, the Argentine leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas, looking for a way to settle a 1 million-pound bond from 1824 that had been in default for 15 years, offered to drop claims to sovereignty of the islands if the British government would take over the debt. Britain refused, arguing that the islands were already its own. In World War I, Britain had a coaling station for its warships on the Falklands.
Argentina, which calls the islands the Malvinas, invaded in 1982 and was forced out after a 74-day conflict in which 255 British and 649 Argentine military personnel died, along with three islanders. The war helped bring down the Argentine military leader, Leopoldo Galtieri, and bolstered the government of Margaret Thatcher in Britain.
“We were settled here before Argentina was even a state,” said Edwards, who fought in the 1982 war and is married to a fourth-generation islander. “We don’t see this as an argument between Argentina and the U.K.; the Falkland Islanders should be listened to.”
Edwards said he expects a “vast majority” to vote in favor of the status quo for the islands, which are home to 2,563 people from 60 different countries, according to the Falkland Islands government website. There are 1,200 military personnel in the British Falklands garrison. The archipelago also has 700,000 sheep.
Rockhopper Exploration Plc (RKH) made an oil discovery at its Sea Lion prospect to the north of the islands in May 2010, which it plans to develop with a $1 billion investment from Premier Oil Plc. Borders & Southern Petroleum Plc says its find to the southwest of the islands may also be commercial.
The U.K. is prepared to fight to keep the islands British if they are invaded again, Prime Minister David Cameron said in January in response to an open letter from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in which she accused Britain of perpetuating colonialism.
“Of course we would, and we have strong defenses in place on the Falkland Islands,” Cameron told BBC television when asked if the U.K. was ready to fight. “I get regular reports on this entire issue because I want to know that our defenses are strong and our resolve is extremely strong.”
On the islands, the focus is on ensuring that everyone who wants to vote gets the chance to do so.
Reid has divided the islands into sections and drawn up detailed timed itineraries for her teams to get to the 282 voters who live outside Stanley as well as the 1,368 in the capital.
“We’ve been working on it for a while, and every single person has been allocated a time and place close to their home to vote,” she said. “On Long Island, for example, it’s the gate nearest to the settlement -- everyone knows everywhere and everything here so they’ll be there.”
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