Britain announces voting reform referendum, amid split fears

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Britain will hold a referendum on changing its voting system next May, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced Monday, in a move which could threaten the country's new coalition government.

Clegg's Liberal Democrats demanded the vote as a key condition for forming a coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives after the Tories failed to win a clear victory in elections two months ago.

But the two sides hold sharply different views on electoral reform, meaning that Cameron and Clegg are set to campaign against each other ahead of the vote.

This could split the centre-right Conservatives and centrist Liberal Democrats, even threatening the future of the coalition, commentators say.

"The prime minister and I have decided that the date for the referendum... will be 5th May 2011," Clegg told the House of Commons.

"The question will be simple, asking people whether they want to adopt the alternative vote, yes or no."

The Conservatives want to stick with the current first-past-the-post voting system, in which the constituency candidate who wins the most number of votes wins outright.

This is also used in countries including the the United States, India and Canada and tends to favour a two-party system.

The Liberal Democrats, traditionally the third largest party, see electoral reform as a touchstone policy and will support a switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system, as used in Australia, in the referendum.

This allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, although does not go as far on electoral reform as the party would eventually like.

Respected political commentator Andrew Rawnsley said the popular vote will offer "a moment of maximum risk for the coalition".

"Achieving a yes to AV is now seen by many Lib Dems as the major reason -- and for some of them, the only reason -- to be in the coalition," he wrote in this week's Observer newspaper.

"The government will be in serious peril of collapse if the referendum is lost."

© 2010 AFP

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