Choices for New Zealand's new flag down to two

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - New Zealanders have chosen a design for a possible new national flag that features the country's iconic silver fern alongside the four stars that make up the Southern Cross constellation.

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Preliminary results from a postal ballot were announced Friday with the results too close to call between two flags that feature the same design but with different colours. The winner will be announced Tuesday once all late votes and overseas ballots are counted.

But that will not mark the end of the process. Whichever flag wins Tuesday will then be pitted head-to-head against the current flag in a second vote to be held in March.

The winning design has similarities to the current flag. It retains the four red stars representing the Southern Cross but ditches the British Union Jack in favour of the fern, which has become a national symbol and is worn by many sports teams including the beloved All Blacks rugby team.

New Zealanders were choosing between five options for an alternative flag. Two were designed by Kyle Lockwood with the colour in the top left corner black in one design and red in the other.

Preliminary results released Friday showed Lockwood's black option winning 50.5 per cent of the vote and the red option 49.5 per cent in a runoff voting system.

Figures from the Electoral Commission indicated it had received 1.53 million votes by Friday, representing 48 per cent of eligible voters in the country of 4.6 million people. Some late votes and overseas ballots won't be counted until Tuesday when the official result is announced.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English said in a statement the results showed there was a strong public interest in the process.

"New Zealanders can now turn their attention to deciding whether to keep the current flag, or replace it," he said.

But opposition leader Andrew Little said many people had protested the referendum by casting votes that were ineligible to be counted. About 10 per cent of all votes were ineligible.

Initially there were only four alternative flag options slated for the ballot, but a popular campaign for a geometric design called "Red Peak" prompted lawmakers to amend the rules to add it to the finalists. But Red Peak ended up finishing a distant third behind the Lockwood designs.

Many in New Zealand consider the current flag to be outdated and too similar to Australia's flag. The Union Jack, or Union Flag, harks back to a colonial past that many New Zealanders are eager to put behind them. New Zealand sometimes comes under the shadow of Australia, its larger neighbour, and having flags that are almost identical only compounds that problem.

However, there are plenty of New Zealanders who want to keep their current flag. Many veterans fought under the flag and feel a special bond to it. Others simply don't see any need for a change, or view the process as an expensive stunt initiated by Prime Minister John Key to distract from more pressing issues.\


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