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The European Elections: Costa del Sol's expats keep low profile: Phil Davison in Marbella finds Spain's foreign residents are reluctant to engage in the machinery of Euro-voting

Only 7 per cent of Britons resident in Marbella and along the Costa del Sol have registered to vote on Sunday for Spanish candidates to the European Parliament. It is the first chance for Britons to vote in Spain but the statistics suggest few care enough, or that many prefer to keep a low profile when it comes to official bureaucracy.

Britons here get upset by the tabloids' insistence that their chosen home is the 'Costa del Crime', but inquiries about people's voting intentions turned me into a leper in some bars, prompting hints that I might be from the Inland Revenue or Scotland Yard and suspicious requests to see my press card.

You can see them cruising in their Rolls Royce Corniches, Mercedes or Porsches - with an exotic variety of customs-free number plates - or sipping sundowners on their yachts at the Puerto Banus marina. But when it came to signing up at the Town Hall during the first six weeks of the year - the voting registration period - Britons and other EU citizens stayed away.

Consular officials estimate only a few thousand of the 70,000 known British residents of Spain have registered to vote. In the small town of Mijas, in the hills above the Costa del Sol, where the 13,400 EU citizens outnumber Spaniards, only 466 registered.

'A lot of people out here are older folks. They came out to retire, to get away from politics,' said James Chapman, 46, a father of five from Exeter who runs a property management business in Mijas. 'I dragged my wife, my 18- year-old boy Anthony and even my mum along. She won't say how old she is. I reckon she's about 70 but apparently she's eligible.'

Mr Chapman - 'one of Norman Tebbit's boys. I got on my bike and decided to do something' by moving to Spain six years ago - noted that the Spanish party list system left most Europeans uninterested. 'There's also still a certain colonial attitude. A lot of people don't realise that this is the beginning of a great future for expatriates.' On Sunday, British residents of Spain can vote for the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), the conservative opposition Partido Popular (PP) or smaller parties. Behind the bougainvillea and mimosa-clad villas around here, the number of Daily Telegraphs on coffee tables suggest the PP will do well out of the British vote.

The European poll has helped to alert Spain's British residents to the fact that they will have a more direct chance to vote next year. For the first time, they will be able to vote in municipal elections. In towns such as Mijas, that could mean a British, German, Dutch or Danish mayor. Mr Chapman plans to run for the Town Council on the PP ticket - he has been a member for four years - campaigning on behalf of foreigners' main concerns, such as better policing and sanitation. He is, however, full of praise for Mijas's Socialist mayor, Antonio Maldonado, who opened Spain's first special department for foreign residents, an idea that has spread elsewhere.

Spain's parties have done little to win foreigners' votes. The PP put a few advertisements in papers during the registration period but the Socialists were slow to act. Last Monday, D-Day, the Socialist administration of the town of Fuengirola had a brainwave. It issued a 'congratulatory D-Day message' to Europeans - including Germans - reminding them of Sunday's vote and that the Socialists would carry forward D- Day's message of 'liberty and democracy in Europe'.

In the remote small town of Montefrio, north-west of Granada, Briton Lawrence Bohme, undeterred by being the only foreigner among the 8,000 population, plans to run for mayor next year against the Socialist incumbent Antonio Garcia. 'The Spaniards are very naive. They've been asleep but they're beginning to see that the system is rotten from the middle,' said Mr Bohme, 52, an interpreter from London whose German father fled the Nazis and spent the war in Kingston-upon-Thames.