Thursday, May 14, 2009

How Gibraltar can sway UK poll results

The Rock of Gibraltar lies at the tip of Spain and overlooks the north of Africa. It is baked by the Mediterranean sun, but on 4 June it will become a town in the south-west of England, much like Falmouth or Swindon. The approximately 18,000 voters of Gibraltar will help to choose who represents South West England in the European Parliament.

Gibraltarians vote with far greater enthusiasm than their UK counterparts. The first time they got to vote in the 2004 Euro-elections, the turnout was nearly double the UK average, at 60%. Taxi drivers Wilfred Lima and Lea Manasco are true Gibraltarians - their parents and grandparents all lived on the Rock. They explain why they like to vote. "Of course voting is very popular here", says Mr Manasco. "We had to fight for it but there we are, we've got it. It's important for us, of course."

Gibraltarians only recently won the right to vote for MEPs, after gaining victory at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The British Government first opposed the move, but then decided to graft Gibraltar onto a part of the UK with similar military and naval traditions. They chose the south-west.

Mr Lima says: "Don't forget that we joined Europe in 1973, together with the Kingdom of Britain. Spain joined in 1986, so we have a right to vote now. We had to fight for the right to vote but we've got it."

The constituency is officially now South West England and Gibraltar, but the Rock's electorate makes up a tiny part of the total, around 1%. Tiny it may be, but it is important to the Chief Minister Peter Caruana. He says that having fought so hard for the vote, people are now keen to exercise that right: "Very often you know, what you get without a struggle you take for granted and what you have to struggle to get, you value it more. "So we had to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights to get this, so it's right that we should go to the trouble of exercising it."

In a 2002 referendum 99% of the people of Gibraltar voted to oppose proposals for joint sovereignty with neighbours Spain. The vote was not officially recognised by Spain or the UK, but neither could ignore this deafening demand for the status quo.

The chief minister believes Spain's longstanding claim to Gibraltar has made its people much more likely to express themselves democratically. "Gibraltar is a small place, people are very politically switched on, very politically informed, and politics permeates all aspects of life here," he explained. "In Gibraltar we have a very high turnout tradition, and that will rub off on the European elections as well."

With its red telephone boxes and helmeted bobbies (policemen), Gibraltar looks and feels British, right down to the wafts of curry drifting down Main Street. But when it comes to voting they certainly do things differently. To help the infirm and elderly on polling days, a mobile ballot box tours the Rock, accompanied by police officers who ensure fair play. Around each of Gibraltar's 12 polling stations is painted a red line. This marks a boundary over which candidates and canvassers may not step except to vote themselves. Transgressors face arrest.

The returning officer for the South West Paul Morris enjoys witnessing such enthusiasm for democracy. He says it is the only place where he has seen queues of voters. "I've been in the elections game for 36 years", he says. "I've never yet been in a polling station anywhere in the UK, France or indeed America, where people actually queue to vote, it's an incredible concept. It's marvellous to see people taking democracy so seriously."

As Gibraltarians prepare to vote again, there is talk in some newspapers of getting an MEP all of their own. That remains an unlikely prospect in a place with such a small electorate. For now, the voters of the Rock enjoy the simple pleasure of just taking part.

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