Britain votes in suspense-filled general election


LONDON: Britons voted on Thursday in a knife-edge general election that could put their country’s membership of the European Union in question and raise the likelihood of independence for Scotland.

Voters were casting ballots in a choice between a government led by Prime Minister David Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives or by Ed Miliband’s centre-left Labour in the closest vote in decades.

 Capturing the tense mood, The Times carried a front page with the words “Judgement Day” emblazoned over a picture of the sun setting behind Big Ben, calling it the “most important election for a generation”.

While the leaders of both main parties insist they can win a clear majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, they will almost certainly have to work with smaller parties to form a government.

Who will team up with whom is the big question.

The last three polls released on Wednesday showed a dead heat between the two main parties, tied at 34 per cent, 35 per cent and 31.4 per cent.

“It’s been quite an exciting one,” Josh Cook, an advertising agency worker, told AFP as he cast his vote in north London.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said, adding: “It’s more important than ever to get out to vote.”

More than 45 million Britons are eligible to vote at polling stations located everywhere from shipping containers to churches and pubs on the mainland and remote islands, which will close at 2100 GMT.

Exit polls will be released at 2100 GMT and most results will emerge overnight, although the final tally of seats will not become clear until Friday afternoon.

“It’s in the hands of voters now,” Scottish National Party chief Nicola Sturgeon said as she left a polling station in the city of Glasgow after casting her vote.

Labour leader Miliband and Nigel Farage of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) also voted early.

If neither the Conservatives nor Labour win a clear majority, they will start days and possibly weeks of negotiations with smaller parties to try and build a bloc of around 326 seats.

The SNP, which wants Scotland to split from Britain, looks set to fare particularly well north of the border and secure a strong position in the talks.

While that result would have been inconceivable a year ago, support for Sturgeon’s party has soared since Scotland rejected independence in a referendum last September.

The SNP has said it would support a minority Labour government but not a Conservative one.

The centrist Liberal Democrats, junior partners in Cameron’s coalition government set up in 2010, will also have a key role to play in negotiations and are open to working with either of the two main parties.

Farage’s UKIP is only expected to win a handful of seats and therefore play a limited role in post-election negotiations.

The new government, whether led by the Conservatives or Labour, would face its first big test when lawmakers vote on its legislative programme after a traditional speech given by Queen Elizabeth II in parliament on May 27.

The election is being watched closely around the world due to the consequences it could have for the standing of Britain, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear-armed Nato state.

“A Little England does not augur well for a US foreign policy which aims specifically to empower like-minded states to share the burden of leadership,” Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution foreign affairs think-tank in the US, wrote this week.

Another potential issue for Britain’s global status is that Cameron has promised a referendum on whether Britain, the world’s fifth biggest economy and Europe’s second largest, should leave the EU by 2017 if the Conservatives win.

“This general election will determine what Britain’s place will be in the world in a way that no other general election has done previously, but the importance of this is chronically under-discussed,” Jeanne Park, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations, said earlier.

The consequences of the election will start to become clear on Friday but could take far longer to play out in full.

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