Australia was on Saturday facing the prospect of its first hung parliament in 70 years, party offcials said, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard edged ahead in vote counting for knife-edge polls.
With 76 seats needed for victory, Gillard's Labor party had secured 71 against 66 for Tony Abbott's conservative Liberal/National coalition, after 58 percent of votes had been counted, according to public broadcaster ABC.
But officials on both sides said a hung parliament -- Australia's first since 1940 -- was looking "likely" with neither side appearing set for an outright majority in the 150-seat lower house. "I think a hung parliament is looking more and more likely," Liberal Senator Nick Minchin told ABC, as results poured in from across the nation. "I can't yet find the 17 (seat swing) needed by the Coalition. I've got a net gain of 15 for the Liberal Party at the moment." The sentiment was endorsed by both Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, who called a hung parliament the "most likely result".
The Australian Electoral Commission's tally, which lagged behind the state broadcaster, put the government ahead 59 seats to 49 with 55 percent of the vote counted. Two separate television exit polls conducted before polling closed predicted Gillard's party would win by 51 or 52 percent of the vote to the coalition's 48 or 49, but indicated dangerous swings against Labor in key marginal seats. Early results indeed showed swings against Labor in the battleground states of Queensland and New South Wales, but stronger support for the Greens, which favours the ruling party under Australia's complex preferences system.
Gillard, Australia's first woman prime minister, ran a campaign riddled with problems and overshadowed by anger over her shock ousting of elected leader Kevin Rudd in June, with the backing of factional chiefs. "This is a tough, tight, close contest, but I'm exercising my own vote," Gillard said earlier as she cast her ballot in Melbourne.
Around 14 million electors took part in a mandatory vote for the lower house and half the 76-seat Senate, with experts and opinion polls saying the outcome was too close to call.
Gillard, 48, a red-headed former lawyer who was born in Wales, has pledged better education and healthcare and played up Labor's role in helping Australia shrug off the financial crisis, as well as a planned national broadband scheme.
Abbott, a 52-year-old religious conservative who has doubts about mankind's role in climate change, has targeted fears over illegal immigration and questioned Labor's spending record, as well as Gillard's knifing of Rudd. "This is a big day for our country," Liberal/National coalition leader Abbott said as he cast his vote in Sydney.
"It's a day when we can vote out a bad government." The right-leaning coalition needs a uniform swing of 2.3 percent to return to power less than three years after Rudd ousted 11.5-year prime minister John Howard, pledging action on climate change and impoverished Aborigines.
Victory for Abbott would make Labor the first one-term government since 1932, when the party's James Scullin lost power during turmoil caused by the Great Depression.
Such a defeat would be an ironic end to a government that won international praise for its handling of the global financial crisis, from which Australia emerged stronger than any other Western economy. Both sides are targeting marginal seats in resource-rich Queensland -- Rudd's home state -- and western Sydney, where rapid population growth has put pressure on services and raised concerns about immigration. But Labor's tenure could be saved by Australia's complex proportional representation electoral system that allows voters to pick their party and also list their second and subsequent choices in order of preference.
If voters disillusioned with Labor trump for the Greens, as many analysts expect, but preference Labor, those votes may be redistributed to the ruling party under a deal between the parties, possibly nudging it over the line.