Voters in Curaçao have narrowly endorsed a plan to gain more political autonomy from the Netherlands as tens of thousands of islanders turned out for a nonbinding referendum Friday. More than 41,000 voters supported a 2006 pact that granted the Caribbean island more freedom while preserving its ties to the Dutch kingdom. About 38,000 people voted against the plan, according to the elections commission.
“We won. The people decided that the process will continue,” said one voter, Ersilia de Lannoy. “We are going to be an autonomous country.” The autonomy arrangement just ratified by voters is similar to what the nearby Dutch island of Aruba has had since 1986. The opposition criticized the proposal because a $2.6 billion debt relief deal with the Netherlands would allow the Dutch to supervise the island’s future spending habits. Netherlands Antilles Prime Minister Emily de Jongh-Elhage said the Netherlands offered the relief to help stabilize Curaçao when it achieves autonomy, and the fiscal oversight can end in five years.
The vote is largely symbolic because the Netherlands Antilles—which includes Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten—has been self-governing for 55 years except on matters of defense and foreign policy. Both Curaçao and St. Maarten have sought to stand on their own, while the three smaller islands say they feel overlooked by the Antillean government based in Curaçao and prefer that the Netherlands administer them directly.
The prime minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende, has welcomed the outcome of the referendum and has congratulated his Antillean counterpart, Emily de Jongh-Elhage, on the result. De Jongh-Elhage had threatened to resign from her post if the referendum’s vote had been negative. The deputy minister for kingdom relations, Ank Bijleveld, voiced both relief over the outcome and concern at the narrow margin, and urged Curaçao’s parties to overcome their differences. She stressed that the final accord between the Netherlands and Curaçao is definitive and no longer open to debate.
The administrative restructuring of the five-island archipelago of the Dutch Antilles is planned for next year.