Observing the Falkland Islands Referendum

Posted on 26/03/2013

Earlier this month, Klaus Dodds and Alasdair Pinkerton from the Department of Geography travelled to the Falkland Islands. With the generous support of the College’s Research Strategy Fund and the Shackleton Scholarship Fund, Professor Dodds and Dr Pinkerton were appointed by the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) as accredited observers of the 2013 referendum. The referendum scheduled for 10th and 11th March was, arguably, the most important event facing the Falkland Islands since the 1982 conflict between Britain and Argentina.

The background to the referendum lies in worsening UK-Argentine relations, which have witnessed ever-greater tension between the two political leaders, David Cameron and Christina Kirchner over the last twelve months. Argentina stands accused by the FIG of deliberately targeting activities such as communications links, fishing, and tourism in retaliation for ongoing oil and gas exploratory activity in the waters off the Falklands archipelago. Argentina has accused the UK of being increasingly belligerent regarding sovereignty over the Falklands and ever more dogmatic in terms of refusing to abide by UN resolutions. Both sides have accused the other of behaving in a ‘colonial’ like manner, and seeking to garner support from their respective allies.

Read on for an account of their visit:

"When we arrived in the Falklands a few days before the referendum—which would ask Falkland Islander’s, “do you wish the Falkland Islands to remain a UK overseas territory?”—we were able to join the international observation mission led by a North American team and funded by the Canadian government. The team guided us through the observation process and facilitated our participation.

On day one of the referendum we followed one of the mobile ballot boxes that was scheduled to criss-cross the island of East Falkland, travelling to several of the large farming estates that dominate the Islands. For those living in the larger settlements, including Goose Green, there were also a number of fixed polling stations. Considerable efforts were made to maximize the voter turnout and to ensure that all of the 1672 eligible voters—particularly those in the remotest communities—had an opportunity to cast their vote.

Towards the end of the day, back in Stanley, we watched a large parade of vehicles (including horse-backed riders and a convoy of Land Rovers, motorbikes and other highly decorated vehicles) promoting the YES vote. The parade passed along Ross Road, in front of the Governor’s residence and the massed ranks of journalists watching from the nearby Malvina House Hotel.

The second day of the referendum allowed us to travel to a fixed polling station at Goose Green in the hope of spotting the single solitary voter cast his/her vote. In the end, our timing was slightly off and we managed to miss that vote dropping into the ballot box!

By 7pm, all the ballot boxes from across the archipelago had been transported back to Stanley. Just under three hours later, and under the glare of the television cameras, the chief returning officer announced the result: 99.8% of voters expressed their preference for YES, and only three voters preferred ‘NO’. The voter turnout was 92%. Unsurprisingly, the FIG were pleased, if not relieved, that voter participation had been so high by both local and international standards.

Almost inevitably interest quickly turned to the three ‘NO’ voters. Who were they? Why had they chosen to vote in that direction? Whatever their reasons, the NO vote did not mean that those three voters necessarily wished to imagine a future shaped by Argentina. The referendum result, while not surprising, was important in providing the UK and Falkland Islands’ governments with the evidence of Islander’s democratic wishes. Argentina, on the other hand, will continue to lobby and attempt to persuade the wider world that the referendum was ‘illegal’ or ‘illegitimate’.

The Falklands imbroglio will not diminish any time soon, and is likely only to intensify if and when viable hydrocarbon resources are located within the Southwest Atlantic. Notwithstanding the overwhelming result of the referendum, the Falkland Islands look set to remain a geopolitical hotspot for some considerable time to come. "

Klaus Dodds & Alasdair Pinkerton


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