British referendum, elections strain coalition

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British voters handed the Liberal Democrats a double blow Friday, rejecting their electoral reform bid in a referendum and punishing them in local elections for their role in coalition spending cuts.

The "No" campaign passed the benchmark of 9.87 million ballots in Thursday's referendum, with a projected 69 percent of voters spurning the new system supported by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems also suffered their worst results for a quarter of a century in elections for local councils, even as Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives, which lead the year-old coalition, went largely unscathed.

The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) meanwhile secured a historic majority in the devolved national assembly and vowed to hold a referendum on independence within the next four years.

Clegg described the referendum result as a "bitter blow".

He said his party had taken the brunt of the blame for the swingeing public spending cuts introduced by the coalition to rein in Britain's record deficit but insisted the Lib Dems would soldier on in the coalition.

"We've clearly had bad results overnight and we now need to learn the lessons, get up, dust ourselves down and move on," he said.

The Lib Dems insisted on having the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system for electing the lawmakers -- in which voters rank candidates by preference -- as a condition of joining the coalition after elections in May last year.

With results in from 406 areas out of 440, 68.55 percent of votes were against AV and 31.45 in favour of AV. The BBC projected an eventual winning figure of 69 percent with turnout a higher than expected 41 percent.

Cameron said he remained confident about the future of the coalition despite the results of Clegg's party and added that he would "pay tribute to the work that the Liberal Democrats have done.

"I am absolutely committed to make this coalition government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term," Cameron said.

The Conservatives backed retaining the current first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and opposed the introduction of AV which would benefit smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats.

Senior Lib Dem figures said trust between the two parties had been badly damaged by a vitriolic referendum campaign in which the Lib Dems accused the Tories of making unfounded claims about the cost of introducing AV.

"There is no doubt that the relationships have been frayed in this campaign," said Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown hit out at Cameron for failing to distance himself from the "No" campaign's attacks on the party, and said coalition relations would be more "businesslike" in future.

The referendum and the local elections in England on Thursday were held alongside elections for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond's hopes of holding a referendum on independence were boosted after his governing SNP pulled off what he called a "stunning victory".

In the first overall majority for any party since the parliament opened in 1999, the SNP battered the once dominant Labour Party to win 69 seats in the devolved 129-seat Holyrood assembly.

Salmond pledged to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the next four years, something he could not deliver in his first term as the SNP were outnumbered by unionists.

"Just as the people have bestowed trust in us, we must trust the people as well, and that is why in this term of the parliament we shall bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland's own constitutional future," he said.

In Wales, Labour fell just short of an overall majority in the national assembly, having spent the past four years in government with the left-wing nationalists Plaid Cymru.

© 2011 AFP

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