Lacklustre turnout as Gibraltar votes in EU election against Brexit backdrop
Gibraltar yesterday registered its second-highest turnout for a European Parliament election since Gibraltarians won the right to vote for their EU representatives, but participation was still low.
As polls closed at 10pm last night, Gibraltar’s returning officer, Paul Martinez, confirmed final turnout at 39.79%, meaning 9,441 people voted.
The first time Gibraltar voted in an EU election in 2004, turnout was 57.5%. In the two subsequent elections, it dropped to 35% and 33%.
This was the fourth time Gibraltar had voted in an EU election, and it came against the background of deep uncertainty about Brexit.
In the run-up to the campaign, local political leaders had urged voters to back pro-EU parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, both of which fielded candidates in the south west region of England of which Gibraltar forms part for these elections.
But while there was clear Remain sentiment among many local voters yesterday, others opted for The Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, fuelled in part by frustration at the manner in which the EU has approached Gibraltar issues during the Brexit withdrawal negotiations.
Overall in the UK, The Brexit Party was on course to win more than a third of votes in the UK, according to a poll released yesterday.
Ipsos MORI found that 35% of registered voters who said they were certain to vote would support Nigel Farage's new party.
The Liberal Democrats – whose line-up for the south west and Gibraltar included a Gibraltarian candidate, Luke Stagnetto - were set to come second, according to the figures, with 20% of those questioned saying they would support the pro-Remain group.
Labour was forecast to win 15% of the votes, with the Tories' share predicted to be 9%.
Ukip and Change UK were on course to win 3% of the votes each, while the Greens were forecast to take 10%.
With other EU countries still to vote, the result will not be known until Sunday night when the final polls close.
There were 23,726 Gibraltarian residents registered to vote this year in comparison to 22,265 at the last European elections in 2014.
Even with an increase in the number of voters this year, voter numbers were consistently higher in comparison to 2014 as more people voted throughout the day.
The 14 polling stations opened at 7am until 10pm at night.
Gibraltarians made their way to their local polling stations throughout the day to cast their vote, often accompanied by babies in prams, assisting elderly relatives or even with pet dogs.
By 10am, 5.18% of the electorate had cast their vote in comparison to 4.27% in 2014.
By the time most people finished work yesterday evening, a total of 6,442 of the electorate went to the polls with a turnout of 27.15%. This was a 5% increase from the last elections.
With the backdrop of Brexit behind this vote, the Governor, Lieutenant General Edward Davis, said: “We have not had the opportunity for the people of Gibraltar to express their views or an opinion of where their interests lie against the main theme of this election which is Brexit.”
“So we need to send a strong, clear message of what Gibraltar thinks.”
“If we vote en masse here in Gibraltar, we can have a disproportionate impact on who gets elected in the South West region.
“So let us elect people who have connected with Gibraltar, understand Gibraltar and care about Gibraltar.”
Lt Gen Davis toured various polling stations with returning officer, Paul Martinez, and spoke to staff running them.
During the day, Gibraltar’s own MEP candidate and political leaders went to their local polling stations to fill in their ballot papers.
Gibraltarian MEP candidate Luke Stagnetto marked his own ballot paper for the first time.
He told the Chronicle he did vote during the EU referendum held in 2016 but had to do that by proxy as he was in the middle of his A-Level exams.
The 21-year old Bristol University student is standing for elections with the Liberal Democrats to represent the South West and Gibraltar region.
He described seeing his name on the ballot paper as a “surreal experience” that was “incredible to see”.
Mr Stagnetto was joined by his father, Jonathan Stagnetto, and his father’s partner, Gillaine Dellipiani.
The trio voted at the Central Hall polling station before touring other polling stations across Gibraltar.
The father and son have both stood for the European Elections with the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Stagnetto highlighted yesterday as an important day for Gibraltarians.
He said: “It is important that we express our 96% mandate that we so proudly expressed in 2016 and it is so important that we go out and vote for Remain parties.”
Mr Stagnetto is sixth on the list of Lib Dem candidates for the South West and Gibraltar.
“Last week’s visit from the Lib Dem leader, Sir Vince Cable, and MEP candidate, Caroline Voaden, illustrates why the Liberal Democrats are the best party to support Gibraltar’s remain mandate,” Mr Stagnetto said.
He added that his party is the only party that has a manifesto commitment and stands up for Gibraltarian rights for self-determination and the rights for Gibraltarians in Europe.
The last few weeks have been a busy few weeks for Mr Stagnetto has received lots of “encouragement and support” from fellow Gibraltarians to yesterday’s elections.
While Mr Stagnetto was talking to the Chronicle a minibus filled with Mount Alvernia residents arrived at the polling station to vote.
Later in the day, the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo greeted another group of elderly Gibraltarians who arrived at the Central Hall polling station to vote.
Mr Picardo was joined by his wife, Justine.
The Chief Minister said he was voting in yesterday’s elections as a “citizen” but highlighted the importance for Gibraltarians voting in these “hard-fought” elections.
“For Gibraltarians voting in European parliamentary elections has always been hugely important because it was a vote we were denied,” Mr Picardo said.
“We had to fight for this right in the European Court of Human Rights and I was a junior member on that team so it will always have a special importance.”
“This election, in particular, I think is very important because this is an election we were going to be denied by those who wanted to leave the European Union even before today’s date.”
“I am delighted that we have had the chance to be able to vote once again in this hard-fought franchise for the people of Gibraltar.”
Mr Picardo said that in this system of proportional representation, or the D’hondt System, as it is known, every vote can make the difference.
This could tip the balance for parties hoping to get their candidate into the European Parliament.
“The population of Gibraltar, which for the purpose of this franchise is perhaps 20,000 people, is hugely important in that balancing act which is done at the end under the D’hondt System,” he added.
The GSD’s Leader of the Opposition, Elliott Phillips, said: “We fought, as we have done on all other matters where our rights as a people have been put under the microscope, for the right to vote in these elections and we won.”
“In 2016, nearly 97% of us voted to remain and we sent a loud, clear and unequivocal message to Europe.”
“Whatever their view on Europe and Brexit, it is important Gibraltarians to exercise their right.”
Together Gibraltar’s leader Marlene Hassan-Nahon said that although Gibraltar is a very small centre, it sends a “very clear sign of remain” in the 2016 referendum.
“And that is something that is not forgotten,” she said.
“We were the vote of reason and the voice of reason and therefore we have a chance to do this now.”
“Thank goodness we are in this position where anything can actually happen but in the meantime we need to have clear remain ambassadors in Brussels.”
Ms Hassan-Nahon singled out the Liberal Democrats “as the best option”, adding that the party’s Gibraltarian candidate is “very fruitful for Gibraltar”.
“Even though he is at the bottom of the list and may not make it into the European Parliament, he will also be fighting our corner,” she added.
“This is a very good opportunity for us to send a message to Brussels and to the UK and ensure that Gibraltar’s voice is heard just like in 2016.”
Denise Matthews, in whose name a case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights in the late 90s so that Gibraltarians could vote in the European Elections, also voted yesterday.
After she finished voting at the Dolphin Youth Club, she described yesterday a “historical moment” and said it was a victory for Gibraltar even 20 years after gaining the right to participate.
At the end of the day, Mr Martinez and his team gathered the votes to ensure they were verified and sealed in evidence bags which were then stored in the Supreme Court until Sunday.
After polls close across the EU on Sunday night, these will be counted and the results will be announced.