New Zealanders have begun voting on whether to change their flag from a design which features the British Union Jack to one which features a native silver fern.

The postal ballot on Thursday will extend over the next three weeks, with preliminary results to be announced March 24.

Organisers say that deciding the issue by popular vote represents a world first, and that other countries have changed flags by revolution, decree or legislation.

Opinion polls indicate the nation of 4.7 million people will opt to stick with its current flag, although proponents of the new design say they have momentum on their side and that more and more people are embracing a change.

Those favouring change say the current flag is too similar to Australia's and references a colonial past that it is time to leave behind.

Those opposed to change say the new design is uninspiring or is an attempt by Prime Minister John Key to create a legacy. One group seeking to keep the status quo is the Returned and Services Association, which represents war veterans.

Laser-shooting kiwi bird

The process of choosing a potential new flag has been long and sometimes amusing. People submitted more than 10,000 designs, including one with a kiwi bird shooting a green laser beam from its eye and a stick drawing of a deranged cat.

A December popular vote saw a flag by architectural designer Kyle Lockwoodbecome the official challenger.

Only 48 percent of eligible voters took part in that poll, the lowest turnout for any government-initiated referendum in the country’s history.

Historian Caroline Daley said that despite the long and democratic process, the vote has not come at the right time.

'Governments that change flags tend to do so because of a really major event, like becoming a republic," the University of Auckland academic told Al Jazeera, mentioning South Africa’s flag-changing after Nelson Mandela's release from prison as another example.

"We haven’t had one of those big events which I think is why a lot of people are thinking 'why bother?'".

Opponents to the referendum have criticised the cost of the process, estimated at at least $27m.

Like the current flag, the suggested new flag features four red stars representing the Southern Cross, but replaces the Union Jack with a fern and changes the background colors.

Prime Minister Key told Radio New Zealand this week that people had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to vote for a new flag.

"If they don't vote for change now, they'll never get another chance until we become a republic," he said, adding that he could not see that happening within his lifetime because of the popularity of the young British royals.

Courtesy: Aljazeera