British referendum set to reject voting change

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Britons appeared set to reject a change in the way they elect their lawmakers as they voted Thursday in a national referendum that has threatened to tear the ruling coalition apart.

Vitriolic campaigning for the vote opened up a rift between the centre-right Conservative party and the smaller Liberal Democrats just one year after they joined forces in an unlikely political marriage.

Opinion polls indicate a landslide win for the campaign led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to keep Britain's long-standing first past the post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

His deputy Nick Clegg, the leader of the centrist Lib Dems, looks set for a humiliating defeat in his campaign to introduce the alternative vote (AV), in which candidates are ranked by preference.

Polling stations opened at 0600 GMT and will close at 2100 GMT, but a result is not expected until late Friday because the referendum is being held alongside local elections for which votes must also be counted.

Those elections are for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus for local authorities in England and Northern Ireland.

Britain has only held one other nationwide referendum in recent times, when voters on June 6, 1975 backed the country's continued membership of the European Economic Community.

A Guardian/ICM poll on Thursday predicted a 68 percent "No" vote with just 32 percent in favour of changing the system, while a YouGov poll published in The Sun forecast 60 percent "No" and 40 percent "Yes".

Writing in the Daily Mail newspaper, Cameron urged voters to keep the current system.

"It is a vital day for our democracy. We mustn't sleepwalk into a second rate voting system that damages our democracy permanently. So I urge you to say No' to AV," Cameron wrote.

Clegg's "Yes" campaign has garnered a host of celebrity supporters including actor Colin Firth, who won the best actor Oscar in February for his portrayal of a stammering King George VI in "The King's Speech".

Speaking as he cast his ballot in Sheffield, northern England, Clegg urged Britons to "get stuck in and join in on the referendum on our voting system to make our politics a bit better and a bit fairer."

Turnout is expected 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 the bitter war of words between the coalition partners has garnered headlines as it turned increasingly nasty.

The Conservatives only agreed to hold the referendum after Clegg's Lib Dems, normally the third-placed party, made it a condition of joining forces to form a government after a general election one year ago.

But Clegg has accused the "No" camp of "lies" and Lib Dem energy minister Chris Huhne sparked headlines after accusing them of an alarmist campaign with tactics he likened to those of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

The row spilled over into a testy confrontation in Tuesday's weekly cabinet meeting.

The referendum and the local elections are the first major electoral test for the coalition since it started pushing through unpopular public services cuts to tackle a record deficit left by the previous Labour government.

Under AV, voters rank candidates standing in a parliamentary constituency in order of preference, with the lowest-scoring candidate eliminated through a series of rounds and their votes re-allocated to their rivals until one gets over 50 percent.

Cameron and the "No" camp argue 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, called it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to change British politics.

© 2011 AFP

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