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Historic election raises tensions

By Lynne French
BBC News, Sark

Election poster
People have been given full instructions on how to cast their vote

Voters in a UK general election can be swayed by a range of issues, including education, law and order and the NHS.

But for residents of Sark it is the island's survival and future direction that has been the main topic of debate.

The smallest of the four main Channel Islands has marked its place in history by giving islanders the right to elect its government after nearly 450 years of feudal rule.

On Wednesday, at the polling station in Island Hall's snooker room, Sarkees will choose 28 conseillers (politicians) from a total of 57 candidates - about 12% of the island's 474-strong electorate.

Some candidates have focussed on protecting and preserving the island's gentle and traditional way of life, while others have campaigned to bring more of the 21st Century to Sark.

The road to democracy has not been a smooth one - with some islanders claiming they have been pushed down that road by the billionaire owners of the Telegraph Group, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay.

The twin brothers' involvement began in 1993 when they bought Sark's neighbouring island of Brecqhou, paying the traditional triezieme (one thirteenth) of the purchase price to Sark's lord, Seigneur Michael Beaumont.

I'm sure whatever the outcome of the election things won't change too much
Tomaz Slivnik, Sark resident

Since then, the Barclays have spent years trying to overturn the feudal system, which included a government (Chief Pleas) made up primarily of inherited tenants (landowners).

They have claimed some victories, including a change to Sark's inheritance law.

Until 1999, all land was inherited by the eldest son alone, but the Barclays wanted to leave Brecquou to all four of their children - three sons and a daughter.

After lobbying the Home Office and threatening to take Sark to the European Court of Human Rights, the Chief Pleas (government) voted to let islanders decide who could inherit.

Even when Sark decided earlier this year to have a government of 28 elected members, it was challenged by Sir David and Sir Frederick.

They objected to the remaining two hereditary roles of seigneur, who holds the fiefdom of Sark for the British Crown, and the seneschal who is senior judge and president of the Chief Pleas.

Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled the seneschal's dual role breached human rights, but refused to quash the reform law which would have stopped Wednesday's election.

Employment gains

The Barclay brothers have invested heavily in Sark in recent years, which has been welcomed by some islanders but not by others.

The issue has caused a growing tension in the run up to the election, but many have chosen not to voice their opinions in public.

One resident, who asked not to be identified, told BBC News she believed people employed by the Barclays were worried about their jobs.

"Some people who've been friends all their lives have fallen out. It's so silly - we've managed fine all these years, so why start messing about changing everything?"

Another islander said the main cause of unrest was probably more about the "fear of the unknown".

Chief Pleas
The new Chief Pleas will have 28 elected members

"The Barclays have invested in developing parts of Sark and that's brought employment and given people money to spend," he said.

"Most of us recognise the benefits Barclay money has brought, even if some worry needlessly about too much development ruining the island," said another.

"The old ways worked in the past, so who's to say new ways won't work in the future - it's a challenge."

Brecqhou comes under Sark's jurisdiction, but its residents will not vote on Wednesday as they have not registered on the electoral roll.

Tomaz Slivnik, who moved to Sark in October 2006, said despite the differing opinions he was optimistic people would make the right choice in the election for the "idyllic" island.

'Intelligent candidates'

"Sark has atmosphere. It has clean air, freedom and very genuine lifestyle," the 38-year-old businessman and academic told BBC News.

"To me, these are unique features which money can't buy, and I'm sure whatever the outcome of the election things won't change too much.

"It's a very close-knit community and, although there's been a little tension recently, there are a lot of good, intelligent candidates on both sides."

Mr Slivnik - who is originally from Slovenia and has also lived in the US, Australia, Italy and the UK - said a steady decline in tourism over recent years meant some changes may have to be considered, but it should not be at the expense of the lifestyle.

"This is an almost perfect place - there's virtually no crime, no terrorism, no overregulation, so part of me thinks 'why change it?'," he said.

"I'm a bit apprehensive about the election because this is where I want to stay and I don't want it to change too much.

"But I know these candidates are good people who'll do what's in the best interest of the island."

The Barclay brothers declined to speak to BBC News about the election.

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SEE ALSO
Sark's historical customs remain
09 Dec 08 |  Guernsey
Sark's winding road to democracy
08 Dec 08 |  Guernsey
Barclays win partial Sark victory
02 Dec 08 |  Guernsey
Sark democracy plans challenged
21 May 08 |  Guernsey
Sark agrees switch to democracy
22 Feb 08 |  Guernsey

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