VOTERS in the Falkland Islands go to the polls this weekend in a bid to deal an overwhelming blow to Argentina’s boisterous claims to sovereignty.
The islands are expected to offer a near unanimous “yes” vote in the referendum in favour of remaining a British overseas territory.
But political commentators say the result, due to be ammoumced on Monday night, is unlikely to silence Argentine rhetoric on the islands, which they maintain are rightfully theirs. Many of them have already dismissed the referendum as “meaningless”.
More than three decades since Britain and Argentina went to war over the archipelago in the South Atlantic, tensions between London and Buenos Aires are running high. That has unsettled some of the 2,500 islanders and strengthened patriotic feeling.
Just 1,649 Falklands-born and long-term residents are registered to vote in the two-day referendum which starts tomorrow (sun). Bookmaker Ladbrokes has described it as “the biggest certainty in political betting history”, saying not one person had placed a bet on a “no” vote.
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said they welcomed the referendum and hoped the people of the islands would choose to remain British.
Kerri Jamieson, a Falklands-born small business owner who has been selling commemorative referendum T-shirts, said the post office has produced a line of official stamps to mark the occasion.
She said: “People feel strongly about this. It’s our chance to make a unified stand on something that affects us deeply. For the Argentines, it’s just an academic exercise, but for us, it affects us enormously.”
Many islanders have said that fiery remarks by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman, have fuelled patriotic sentiment on the islands, which lie nearly 8,000 miles from Edinburgh and just a 75-minute flight away from southern Argentina.
Tensions have risen with the discovery of commercially viable oil resources in the Falklands basin and Ms Fernandez’s persistent demands for Britain to hold sovereignty talks over the Malvinas, as the islands are called in Spanish.
Mr Timerman said last month the referendum had the “spirit of a public relations campaign” and government allies have questioned its legitimacy.
Senator Daniel Filmus, head of the Argentine senate’s foreign policy committee, said: “It’s almost an act of self-satisfaction to ask British people if they want to be British. As far as we’re concerned, it seems completely meaningless.”
The islanders insist the decision belongs to them, not to London or Buenos Aires.
Gavin Short, one of the Falklands assembly’s eight elected members, said: “This isn’t really about Argentina, this isn’t really about the United Kingdom, this is about us - the Falkland islanders, our country.
“We’re the people who really matter in all this.”
Argentina has claimed the territory since 1833, arguing that they inherited it from the Spanish on independence and that Britain expelled an Argentine population from the islands.
The sovereignty claim is a constant in Argentine foreign policy, but there have been moments of detente since former dictator Leopoldo Galtieri sent troops to land in the Falklands in April 1982, drawing a swift response from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Over the 10-week war, about 255 British and 650 Argentine troops were killed.
Despite everything from football stadiums to pizza parlours in Argentina being named after the Malvinas, Senator Filmus added: “There is absolutely no chance - not today, tomorrow or ever - that Argentina will look for a solution beyond diplomacy and peace.”
Nevertheless, the war of words has continued over the islands. Plans by London-listed firms to tap offshore oil and gas deposits near the Falklands, which could make the prosperous islands even wealthier, are branded as looting in Argentina. The islands are expected to start producing their first oil in 2017.
The rhetorical battles have fuelled criticism, with some critical of President Fernandez’s approach.
Andres Cisneros, who was deputy foreign minister during a relative thaw in relations with the islanders in the 1990s, said the referendum will merely be used by Argentina to deepen its hostility, to the benefit of Britain.
He said: “Today we’re in a worse position than ever... we’ve never been so far from [sovereignty talks].”