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Gibraltar votes in closely fought election

Gibraltar votes on Thursday in a tight election which could affect talks on a deal settling the tiny British overseas territory’s ties with the European Union following Brexit.

Around 25,000 people are eligible to cast ballots for candidates from two parties, as well as an independent, who are vying for representation in the 17-seat parliament in the enclave on Spain’s southern tip, dubbed “the Rock” because of its famous cliff-faced mountain.

Polls have consistently put the ruling centre-left Socialist-Liberal alliance neck-and-neck with the opposition centre-right Gibraltar Social Democrats.

At 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) 24.14 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, almost two percentage points more than during the previous election in 2019, authorities said.

Fabian Picardo, the incumbent chief minister, who has headed the government of Gibraltar since 2011, has warned that the talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit future would suffer a setback if his alliance was ousted from power.

“Do you really think that what you want to do on Friday is wake up to a new negotiating team on the most complex negotiation that Gibraltar has been involved in its history?” he asked in one of his final campaign appearances.

“We are on the cusp of achieving something very, very special,” said the 51-year-old who is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office.

Gibraltar, which has a land border with Spain, has been in limbo since Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in 2020 left it outside the bloc’s customs union and without guaranteed free movement of people.

Under a temporary agreement, Spain has granted free border passage to workers and tourists to avoid disruption, but this could be rescinded at any time.

– ‘Gibraltar needs a change’ –

The talks are aimed at agreeing a common travel area between Gibraltar and the so-called Schengen passport-free zone, which covers most of the EU’s member states along with four other European nations.

With the protocol on Northern Ireland agreed by London and Brussels earlier this year, Gibraltar now stands in isolation as the last British territory left without a deal that clarifies its future relationship with the EU and with its neighbour Spain.

Keith Azopardi, leader of the opposition Gibraltar Social Democrats and a former deputy chief minister of Gibraltar, has blasted Picardo for failing to reach an agreement, vowing his party would deliver a “safe and beneficial” deal.

His campaign has focused on domestic issues, promising to build more public housing, reform public services and reduce debt.

“Gibraltar needs a change,” the 56-year-old said at the start of the campaign.

The British territory relies on around 15,000 workers — most of them European, making up half of Gibraltar’s workforce — who cross the border with EU-member Spain every day.

Fluidity at the border is also key for tourism.

Gibraltar, which is strategically located at the western gateway to the Mediterranean Sea, welcomes millions of visitors every year.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht but has long argued that it should be returned to Spanish sovereignty.

Britain remains responsible for its defence and foreign affairs but Gibraltar, with its British pubs and red telephone boxes, is now essentially self-governing.

Polling stations were scheduled to close at 10:00 pm, with official results expected early on Friday.