British referendum set to reject voting change
London: Britain on Friday looked set to reject a change in the way its lawmakers are elected after the country voted in a national referendum that has threatened to tear the ruling coalition apart.
Bitter 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.
Deputy Premier 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.
But the issue has largely failed to interest the public as both sides have struggled to get their message across amid the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, followed by the death of Osama bin Laden.
Some polling stations in London were largely empty after they opened at 0600 GMT on Thursday, reporters said. They closed at 2100 GMT but a result is not expected until late Friday.
The referendum was held alongside elections 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 in 1975 backed the country`s continued membership of the European Economic Community, now the European Union.
A Guardian/ICM poll on Thursday predicted a 68 percent "No" vote with just 32 percent in favour of AV. A YouGov poll 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.
The "Yes" campaign has a host of celebrity supporters including actor Colin Firth, who won an Oscar in February for his performance in "The King`s Speech".
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.
Clegg had earlier pushed for what he said would be transformative change to Britain`s political system -- but even he seemed to struggle to muster enthusiasm as he cast his ballot in Sheffield, northern England.
Despite a lack of public interest, the bitter war of words between the coalition partners nevertheless garnered headlines.
Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown slammed the Prime Minister in Friday`s Guardian newspaper.
"He (Cameron) did not dissociate himself from a campaign whose nature I believe every previous British prime minister in my time would have disassociated himself from. That is a grave disappointment," said Ashdown.
"I have always said when asked I did not think the result of the referendum could affect the coalition, but I did think the way it was fought could," warned the lord. "This is a triumph for the regiment of lies."
Lib Dem Energy Minister Chris Huhne sparked headlines with allegations of an alarmist campaign using tactics he likened to those of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.
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 more than 50 percent.
The referendum and local elections are the first major electoral test for the coalition since it started pushing through unpopular cuts to tackle a record deficit.
Early results from English local elections suggested voters had punished the Lib Dem coalition partners as they suffered crushing losses in the major northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool.
The opposition Labour party looked set to make gains in England, but were staring at humiliating defeat in Scotland where early victories seemed certain to hand victory to the ruling Scottish National Party.
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