British government strained by voting reform

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Britain votes in a referendum Thursday on changing the voting system, after a vitriolic campaign that has set the two parties in the ruling coalition at each other's throats.

Voters will decide whether they want to keep the system of first past the post, where the candidate with the most votes wins, or adopt the alternative vote (AV), where candidates are ranked by preference, for national elections.

Prime Minister David Cameron is leading his Conservative party in opposing the change, while his deputy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, is a strong supporter of the "yes" camp.

Polls suggest Cameron's campaign will win the day, putting them at between ten and 18 points ahead, but turnout is likely to be low, as both sides have struggled to get their message across amid the clamour of the royal wedding.

The bitter campaign has sparked headlines, however, and prompted fears for the future of the coalition, an unlikely alliance formed between the centre-right Tories and the centrist Lib Dems after elections one year ago.

After weeks of sniping from both sides, tensions erupted during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, with Lib Dem energy minister Chris Huhne reportedly directly challenging Cameron over claims made by his campaign.

Huhne had previously accused the Tories of running a "Goebbels-like campaign", in reference to the Nazi propaganda chief.

Clegg himself accused the "no" campaign of "lies" and "misinformation" over claims that AV would help extremist parties enter parliament and that the change would cost millions of pounds that Britain could ill afford.

The Lib Dems point to highly emotive "no" campaign posters, such as one showing a baby in an incubator and a message saying: "She needs a new cardiac facility, not an alternative vote system".

And they have been incensed by personal attacks on Clegg, who has already lost public support because of the compromises required to stay in the coalition.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who is fighting for a "yes" vote despite half his opposition party backing the "no" campaign, has urged the electorate "not to see it as a referendum on Nick Clegg or David Cameron or me, but as a chance to change our voting system for the better".

The "no" camp, meanwhile, has accused the Lib Dems of "whingeing" and of desperate tactics to revive a flagging campaign.

"This was always going to be a difficult moment, with the two parties on different sides of a referendum campaign," Cameron told the BBC on Tuesday.

But he insisted: "We are getting on with dealing with the problems our country faces and I think (we have) been a very cohesive and very strong government."

The stakes are high for the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned for a change in the voting system which penalises small parties such as themselves.

They insisted on a referendum as a condition for joining the coalition, although they had to drop their calls for a more radical system of proportional representation in the face of Tory opposition.

Clegg said the referendum was a "rare opportunity to modernise our democracy", ending a system that allowed two-thirds of MPs to be elected without winning a majority of votes in their constituencies.

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.

But Cameron argued that the existing system was "simple, fair and decisive", allowing voters to eject unpopular governments.

Tony Travers, from the London School of Economics (LSE), said the row had caused "temporary damage" but the government was not about to fall.

"There will be short impacts but it's not the end of the coalition," he told AFP, adding that if the Lib Dems lose the referendum, "I'm pretty sure Mr Cameron will find other ways of keeping them in the coalition."

Results of the referendum are not due until late Friday.

© 2011 AFP

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