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Abortion referendum postponed, new date to be fixed

Gibraltar’s referendum on abortion will be postponed against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Public health officials believe the vote can be conducted safely and earlier on Thursday, the Gibraltar Government had said the referendum would go ahead.

But the fact elderly voters had been asked to stay at home in order to slow the spread of coronavirus raised concerns about the “democratic legitimacy” of the vote.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle that against that backdrop, he was “very nervous” the vote might be brought into question.

On Thursday evening he discussed the issue with the GSD and Together Gibraltar and the decision was taken to push back the vote to a later date yet to be determined.

The decision was communicated to the official campaign groups Gibraltar for Yes and the Gibraltar Pro Life Movement, who support the decision.

Both campaigns have also agreed to suspend campaigning until the new date for the referendum has been determined by the Gibraltar Parliament..

Mr Picardo said he was concerned that voters, in particular older ones, might feel they were getting contradictory messages and may not have had the time to organise a proxy vote.

“So although I think from a public health point of view, the advice we're getting was correct, my concern was the democratic legitimacy of the result if the referendum was held next week,” he told the Chronicle.

The decision to postpone the referendum has the support of all political parties in the Gibraltar Parliament.

“The Chief Minister and I spoke this afternoon after I initially reached out to him to express concerns that in this fast moving public health situation on COVID19 the holding of the referendum could represent a risk to participants and the vulnerable especially,” said Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition.

“It is important for the referendum to happen but in a way which allows people to fully participate without any prospect of risk and the current situation does not allow for that.”

“We agreed that the right thing to do was for the referendum to be postponed and I am glad steps are being taken towards that.”

“A date can be identified as soon as possible once the public health panorama settles to ensure this important exercise in democracy happens safely.”

Marlene Hassan Nahon, the Leader of Together Gibraltar, also welcomed the decision to push back the vote.

“At this stage it makes sense to avoid any unnecessary risks, particularly for those that are most vulnerable, and we all should be helping our sick and elderly to reduce exposure to public gatherings as much as possible,” she told the Chronicle.

“This does not mean that the situation is out of control, on the contrary, the government and our health authorities are taking reasonable and sensible measures to ensure the good functioning of Gibraltar while minimising the risks to our people.”

“This community can count on myself and Together Gibraltar to provide support and responsible opposition at these difficult times, and it is imperative that we all show calm, restraint and solidarity with one another.”

“We are a well prepared and resilient community, and together with our excellent health professionals we will overcome this challenge.”

The new date for the Referendum will be fixed by the Gibraltar Parliament and MPs are advised that there will be no risk to any age group entitled to vote.

"I want to thank the Referendum Administrator and his team for the work they have done to date on the organisation of this hugely important referendum,” Mr Picardo said.

“I know that this delay will mean they have to re-do a lot of work they have already undertaken.”

“I also want to thank the respective campaigns for their understanding and agreeing to suspend campaigning until we are able to fix a new date.”

“This [decision] does not contradict the Public Health advice, as we are not doing something they advise us not to do, we are just taking a view as to the potential democratic legitimacy of the result, which must stand up to scrutiny.”

“This could be affected by the apparent contradiction in asking a particular age demographic to stay at home whilst at the same time convening them to an exercise in universal suffrage.”

“Slowing the inevitable spread of the virus in Gibraltar requires us to act decisively and to adapt on a dynamic basis to the circumstances as they develop.”

“I believe this is the right decision for the difficult weeks ahead.”

GSD MP Daniel Feetham, who had earlier taken to Twitter to say he did not agree with the initial decision to continue with the referendum, said: “This is the right decision. You cannot tell elderly or vulnerable people to stay at home to protect themselves and then ask them to come out to vote.”