Britain votes in referendum with coalition under strain
Britain votes Thursday on changing the electoral system after a viciously fought campaign for the first national referendum in more than 30 years put the ruling coalition under strain.
Polls indicate Britons will opt to keep the first past the post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, shunning a switch to the alternative vote (AV) in which candidates are ranked by preference.
Prime Minister David Cameron is leading his centre-right Conservative party in opposing the change, while his deputy, Nick Clegg of the centrist Liberal Democrats, is a strong supporter of the "Yes" camp.
Polling stations open across Britain at 0600 GMT and close at 2100 GMT, but counting in the referendum will not start until Friday at 1500 GMT and the result is expected later that day.
Aside from the nationwide referendum there will also be elections for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus local authorities in England and Northern Ireland.
Britain has only held one nationwide referendum in recent times, when voters on June 6, 1975 backed the country's continued membership of the European Economic Community.
Turnout in 2011 is likely to be low, as both sides have struggled to get their message across amid the clamour of the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, followed by the death of Osama bin Laden.
But nearly one year after a general election that created an unlikely marriage between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, the war of words between the coalition partners has still garnered headlines.
The Conservatives only agreed to hold the referendum after Clegg's Lib Dems, normally the third-placed party in elections, made it a condition of joining forces to form a government.
But Clegg has recently accused the "No" camp of "lies" and Lib Dem energy minister Chris Huhne said they ran a Nazi-like campaign, in a row that spilled over into a testy confrontation in Tuesday's weekly cabinet meeting.
Cameron -- whose government is pushing through harsh public services cuts to tackle a record deficit left by the previous Labour government -- sought to play down the row on the eve of the polls.
"Of course we do not agree about the future of our electoral system. We are having a referendum, we are having a debate about it," he told lawmakers on Wednesday.
"But the reason for having a coalition government, coming together, sorting out this country's problems in the national interest, is as good an argument today as it was a year ago."
At stake is the fundamental question of how Britain chooses its government.
Under AV, voters rank candidates in order of preference, with the lowest-scoring candidate eliminated through a series of rounds and their votes re-allocated to their rivals.
Cameron and the "No" camp argue however that the current system is simple, fair and effective, in that it allows voters to eject unpopular governments.
Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband, who is backing the "Yes" campaign despite his party being split on the issue, added that it was a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to change British politics.
Clegg meanwhile admitted temperatures had been "high" during the campaign, but told BBC radio: "At the end of the day, this isn't about what one politician said to another."
The stakes are especially high for the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned for a change in the voting system which penalises small parties such as themselves.
Their popularity, and especially Clegg's, has plummeted over the past year as voters blame them for failing to stop the Conservatives from bringing in the harshest of the coalition's austerity measures.
© 2011 AFP