Malta votes 'Yes' in divorce referendum

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Maltese voters go to cast their vote in the referendum on 28 May 2011
Image caption,
Malta is the last EU country where divorce is banned

Malta has voted "Yes" in a non-binding referendum on legalising divorce, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has conceded, local media report.

Almost three-quarters of the electorate voted on Saturday on whether divorce should be introduced in Malta.

A majority Catholic country, Malta is the only EU country not to allow divorce.

Figures from the electoral commission late on Saturday showed turnout was 72%, the Times of Malta reports.

"Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected," Dr Gonzi said in a televised speech.

Dr Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce, has said it is now up the parliament to enact a law legalising the dissolution of marriage on the island.

The Catholic Church, which is very influential in the archipelago, had also supported a "No" vote during the campaign.

'New era'

The leader of the "Yes" movement, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, of the governing Nationalist Party, said the result was significant.

"It brings Malta into a new era where the state and the Church are separate," Mr Orlando is quoted as saying by Efe news agency.

Malta is one of only two countries in the world (with the Philippines) to ban divorce - apart from the Vatican.

Chile was the last country to legalise divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.

Maltese voters were asked whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.

Previously, couples could apply for a legal separation through the courts, or seek a Church annulment - a complex process that can take up to nine years.

A third option was to get divorced abroad - and that would then be valid in Malta.