Malta _ a tiny, staunchly Catholic Mediterranean island _ has voted in favor of legalizing divorce, according to the results of a referendum.
Malta is the last remaining European Union nation that bans divorce. But what had been billed as a historic referendum has ushered in a "new Malta," according to a leading politician.
Sunday's final results of the polling the day before showed that 52.67 percent of people voted in favor of divorce, according to the Times of Malta.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who had campaigned against divorce, said parliament would respect the will of the people in the nonbinding referendum and work on legislation to legalize divorce.
"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," Gonzi said in a televised speech reported by the newspaper.
The issue has been hotly debated and allegiances went beyond party lines.
"This is a conservative society, but Maltese still live like Europeans. This regularizes their lives," said analyst Saviour Balzan, whose newspaper, Malta Today, had campaigned in favor of the legalization of divorce. "It gives a new lifeline to hundreds of people."
Balzan also said the "Yes" victory makes Malta more European.
"Divorce is not an obligation for a member state, but it brings us closer to Europe," he told The Associated Press. "Europe is not just directives and legal impositions, it's also about culture."
Malta, which also bans abortion, has long Catholic traditions and the church's influence on the nation's 400,000 citizens is still significant. Some 95 percent of the population calls itself Roman Catholic. Pope Benedict XVI visited the island last year.
The Catholic Church does not permit divorce but does allow annulments.
Joseph Muscat, the pro-divorce leader of the opposition Labor Party, said that a new Malta had been born, the Times of Malta reported. The head of the Divorce Movement, Deborah Schembri, said the committee would remain active until divorce legislation was enacted.
"Now the people have spoken, let us give them what they want," she was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
Turnout stood at around 72 percent _ a high figure by Western standards but among the lowest in Maltese voting. By contrast, turnout in the 2003 referendum on whether to join the EU stood at almost 91 percent and at the last general election at over 93 percent.