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Australians vote in cliffhanger election

Australians voted in the closest national election in decades today with the country's first woman prime minister Julia Gillard neck-and-neck with conservative challenger Tony Abbott.

world Updated: Aug 21, 2010 08:22 IST

Australians voted in the closest national election in decades on Saturday with the country's first woman prime minister Julia Gillard neck-and-neck with conservative challenger Tony Abbott.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (2200 GMT) with 14 million electors taking part in a mandatory vote across the huge country, with last-minute opinion surveys showing only a minute gap between the two leaders.

A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper gave Gillard's Labor a 50.2 to 49.8 per cent lead over the Liberal/National coalition headed by Abbott, raising the prospect of the first hung parliament since 1940.

A separate Nielsen poll put Labor ahead 52-48 per cent, while a Roy Morgan survey gave the government a 51-49 per cent lead.

Gillard's centre-left Labor has struggled to reassure voters after June's shock ousting of elected prime minister Kevin Rudd, lifting Abbott's hopes of a surprise victory.

"When everyone asked I said it would be a cliffhanger... and so it's proving today," Gillard said.

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 its knifing of Rudd.

The right-leaning coalition needs a swing of 2.3 per cent to return to power less than three years after Rudd ousted 11-year prime minister John Howard, pledging action on climate change and the impoverished Aboriginal minority.

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.

Both sides are targeting a swathe of 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.

As campaigning closed, Abbott looked to prove his credentials as a vigorous go-getter with a 36-hour overnight push from Thursday to Friday. On Saturday, he manned a beachside barbecue before casting his vote nearby.

"This is a big day for our country," Abbott said. "It's a day when we can vote out a bad government."

Most polls close at 6:00 pm (0800 GMT) Sydney time with the remainder two hours later due to time differences. The elections will decide the make-up of the 150-seat lower house and half the 76-seat Senate.

"I think it's too close to call at the moment. I think this is really, really tight," said Labor campaign spokesman Chris Bowen. "I think this will go right down to the wire and be the closest election in 50 years."