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New Zealand chooses new flag as preliminary winner

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New Zealanders have picked a blue and black design with the silver fern as the preliminary winner in a referendum on a possible new national flag.The runner-up is a similar-looking red, white and blue design. The final result will be announced on after late and overseas votes are counted, and may change as the winning margin is narrow.

A second referendum will be held in March to decide whether to adopt the new flag, or keep the existing one.

New Zealanders were asked to choose which of five designs they preferred.About 48% of eligible voters took part in the first referendum, which has divided opinion in New Zealand over its cost and timing. The preliminary winner and runner-up flags were both designed by architect Kyle Lockwood, and feature New Zealand icons the silver fern and the Southern Cross.

The second-runner-up was Red Peak, which was added to the ballot after a social media lobbying campaign.

The decision to choose a new flag has been backed by Prime Minister John Key, who has said the current one is too similar to Australia's and that it is time to remove the Union Jack from the flag. He said the turnout, which was higher than had been expected, showed "people are engaging" with the debate, the New Zealand Herald reports. The entire exercise is expected to cost around NZ$27m (£12m, $18m).