December 11, 2008 / 1:26 PM / 11 years ago

Feudal island Sark embraces democracy

LONDON (Reuters) - The West’s last remaining feudal system came to an end this week when inhabitants of the tiny Channel Island of Sark took part in its first full parliamentary election in nearly 450 years.

Yeoman of the Guard prepare for ceremonial duties in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament in London December 3, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The car-free island, which lies about 6 miles east of Guernsey off the coast of Normandy, had broadly held onto the political and judicial systems bestowed upon it by Queen Elizabeth 1.

But the island’s 474 eligible voters enthusiastically embraced democracy, with 87 percent casting their ballot for the 28 members of a new chamber.

A recount was being held on Thursday after just five votes separated the candidates in 28th and 29th place. In all, 57 candidates had stood for election.

“It is democracy in full flow,” said the island’s seneschal, or judge, Lieutenant Colonel Reg Guille.

Some islanders delayed holidays or flew in especially “because it was so important and historic a vote,” Guille added.

“You could see how important it was in the number of people standing and turning out to vote,” he told Reuters.

“It was quite an event to see 57 people standing on the platform waiting for the returning officer to deliver the result.”

One of the first items the chamber will consider during its quarterly meetings is further possible reform to Sark’s public bodies to bring them into line with European law.

The chamber replaces a mainly unelected parliament called the Chief Pleas, which was traditionally made up of members of landed families, and met three times a year.

Half those elected on Wednesday have sat in the Chief Pleas over the years.

“Fifty percent of continuity is ample,” Guille said. “It is a good mix of people.”

The billionaire Barclay brothers, who own and live on the nearby island of Brecqhou, had campaigned for more change.

Twins David and Frederick Barclay, proprietors of the Daily Telegraph Group, had threatened to pull their investment from Sark if their preferred candidates were not elected.

“It would be regrettable if they did,” said Guille.

“But locals would argue that we are the majority of the people here. You have got to remember that they are two out of a population of 620, they would say. The people of Sark have spoken using their democratic right.”

Sark is not part of Britain and nor is it a sovereign state. It has its own legislature, judicial system and administration but London is responsible for its defence, foreign affairs and law and order.

The new government is unlikely to introduce any dramatic changes soon, with the pedestrian way of life set to continue.

“We will not see cars introduced because Sark people do not want them. They do not want helicopters and they do not want cars,” Guille said.

“They are trying to reduce the number of tractors.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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