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Europe

Britain's ruling coalition feels the strain ahead of voting referendum

Britain's coalition government is showing signs of stress ahead of a referendum on electoral changes. Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg accused Conservative premier David Cameron of "defending the indefensible."

David Cameron, left, and Nick Clegg

Cameron and Clegg are poles apart on at least one issue

Britain's ruling coalition showed its greatest signs of discord since coming to power almost a year ago as the country prepares for a referendum on its voting system.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg accused British Prime Minister David Cameron of "defending the indefensible" with his opposition to proposed changes to the way ballots are cast.

Deputy Prime Minister Clegg and his party want a change from Britain's first-past-the-post voting system, in which the single winner of a constituency election is the person with the most votes. There is no requirement to gain an absolute majority of votes.

Under the Alternative Voting (AV) system, each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference giving smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats a greater chance of gaining power.

Party fault-lines

Clegg told Britain's Independent on Sunday newspaper that the "No" campaign, supported by Cameron's Conservatives, had been spreading a "headwind of lies, misinformation and deceit" ahead of the May 5 referendum.

He hit out at the Prime Minister for aligning himself with certain opponents of AV, including the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin.

Yes campaigners in London

Supporters of the change think it will be fairer than the present voting system

"That tells you volumes about the very reactionary interests that are defending the indefensible," said Clegg.

"This nasty No campaign, I hope, will prove to be the death rattle of a right-wing elite, a right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are."

Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed the Lib Dem accusations as "excited" talk as feelings ran high ahead of the referendum. Away from the heat of the campaign the coalition continued to function well and would do so after the results were in, he said.

"A lot of these accusations are aimed at the No Campaign, rather than the Conservative Party. These things do get bandied about in a referendum campaign, feelings run high, people get excited," he said.

All part of the deal

The referendum on AV was a condition of the deal that saw the Liberal Democrats become the junior partner in the governing coalition. The "Yes" campaign is also supported by the opposition Labour Party. The disagreement over the referendum is the first major split to separate the coalition parties, although it had been agreed that the parties would support opposite sides at the time of the coalition deal last May.

A change to the current system is seen as important to the Liberal Democrats, which as Britain's third largest party has found itself squeezed by the current system.

AV is seen as one step on the way to the party achieving its eventual aim of proportional representation.

The AV system works by taking into account the voters' other preferences if no single candidate gains an absolute majority based on first choices.

As well as the referendum, Britons will vote next month in regional elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local authority elections in England.

Liberal Democrat support has plunged in opinion polls since they reneged on a promise to cut university fees, while Conservative supporters are unhappy the coalition has avoided a hard line on issues such as crime and European integration.

Author: Richard Connor (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

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