Malta has voted in favor of introducing divorce in a referendum on the tiny, staunchly Catholic Mediterranean island, news reports said Sunday.

Malta was the last remaining European nation to ban divorce. The result in what had been billed as a historic referendum ushered in a "new Malta," according to a leading politician.

Returns from Saturday's polling were still being counted. But, according to early returns, about 52 percent of people had voted in favor of divorce, the Times of Malta said.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who had campaigned against the legalization of divorce, conceded. He said parliament would respect the will of the people and work on legislation to introduce 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.

Malta 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.

The country also bans abortion. Pope Benedict XVI visited the island last year.

Joseph Muscat, the pro-divorce leader of the opposition Labor Party, said that a new Malta had been born, the Times of Malta reported.

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.