Australia was almost certainly headed for a hung parliament after the closest election in decades Saturday, a staggering setback for the ruling Labor Party that could send the country’s first female prime minister packing after only two months in office.
After weeks of hard campaigning, Julia Gillard ended up in a dead heat with opponent Tony Abbott of the conservative Liberal Party. Neither party won enough seats to achieve a 76-seat majority. The Liberals took 73 seats, Labor had 72 and three were undecided, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. The two parties will now compete to form a coalition government, wooing a clutch of independent lawmakers.
Gillard, a 48-year-old former lawyer who became the nation’s first female prime minister after seizing power in an internal Labor Party coup, said she would remain in office as part of a caretaker government during the “anxious days ahead.” If toppled, she will have had the shortest term of any Australian prime minister.
“Obviously this is too close to call,” she told supporters Saturday in her hometown, Melbourne. “We will continue to fight to form a government in this country.”
Abbott, 52, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, said he would immediately begin negotiations with independents to form a government. Although his socially conservative views alienate many women voters, supporters say Abbott can better empathize with Australian families.
It could be days before a result is known, although discussions over coalition-building with independents and Greens are likely to start soon.
Abbott said that one election result was clear: “The Labor Party has definitely lost its majority.”
There was one obvious winner: the Greens, who picked up their first federal parliamentary seat. The Greens are also likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate.
Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, had a stunning drop in popularity after being elected in a landslide in 2007, rising to power on an Obama-like platform of social and political change, and giving his left-of-center party the reins of government after 11 frustrating years in opposition.
“He came in making a lot of promises … and delivered on few of them,” Andrew Hughes, a political analyst at Canberra-based Australian National University, said at the time of Rudd’s downfall. “In recent months, his message became confused to most voters.”
Analysts said Australia’s major foreign policy positions, including its deployment of 1,550 troops to Afghanistan, would not be affected by any election outcome because the sides hold similar views.
Bennett is a special correspondent.