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New Zealanders vote no to flag change

New Zealand has chosen to keep its current flag. More than 2 million people voted in a referendum on whether to replace the flag's Union Jack with a silver fern leaf.

The South Pacific nation has voted to keep its current flag, according to preliminary results released by the country's electoral commission on Thursday.

More than two million Kiwis

took part in the referendum

, with a voter turnout of more than 67 percent. Of those who voted, 56.6 percent chose the current flag while just over 43 percent chose the alternative flag.

It marks the end of a process which cost New Zealand taxpayers the rough equivalent of 16 million euros ($17 million). More than 10,000 entries were received in a design competition, the more notable of which included a local delicacy, a hokey pokey ice cream cone and a kiwi bird with laser eyes, submitted by James Gray of Auckland.

Five alternative flag choices were offered in the first referendum

Five alternative flag choices were offered in the first referendum

After a flag consideration panel made a shortlist, the referendum was a two-stage process. In the first vote,

which took place in late 2015,

citizens were asked to rank their preferred alternative flag choices from five options. The winning option, the silver fern on a black background accompanied by the Southern Cross, then went to the vote against the Union Jack and Southern Cross flag which has been the country's official emblem since 1902.

Australien Nationalflagge

Spot the difference: The Australian flag

The new design had been compared unfavorably to a corporate logo and a tea towel by its detractors while its supporters pointed towards the silver fern as a long-renowned international symbol for New Zealand.

The reasons for changing the flag included the fact that it featured the Union Jack - tied to the country's colonial history - and very closely resembled Australia's.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key had been a vocal advocate for changing the flag to the silver fern design.

"Obviously I'm naturally a little bit disappointed that the flag didn't change. It was much closer than everyone expected," Key said, referring to the vote. He then called for support

The flag issue was a popular topic of debate among Kiwi social media users, with many pointing out that they were not opposed to changing the flag, they just didn't like the alternative design.

Others lamented what they saw as the exorbitant cost of the referendum and thought the money could have be better spent. Official results taking into account late incoming postal votes will be published on March 30.

se/jil (AP, AFP, dpa)

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