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Britain's odd election: Where third equals first?

LONDON (AP) — In Britain's wildly unpredictable election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's faltering Labour Party could finish third — but still end up running the country. The surging Liberal Democrats could get a third of the vote and a small fraction of the seats.

Britain's complex — and some say bizarrely unfair — electoral system is emerging as a central issue in a ballot which, if no clear winner emerges, could induce a country steeped in tradition to finally move toward serious electoral reform.

The system has long given Brown's party a head start on its rivals, allowing it to win more House of Commons seats with far fewer votes. It's chiefly because Labour's support is more evenly distributed across the constituencies, and because the party tends to capture districts where there are fewer voters.

In recent elections, the main opposition Conservatives have needed not just more votes but a large margin of victory for a chance at seizing power.

Usually the winning party takes far fewer than half the votes, but emerges with a solid absolute majority anyway. This time, the math suggests that the close-fought contest on May 6 is likely to deny all major parties an outright majority. Although that is standard in many parliamentary democracies like Germany, it's so rare in Britain — where the last time it happened was 1974 — that Britons use a special term fraught with the suggestion of crisis: "a hung Parliament."

Such an outcome could allow a wounded Brown to cling to power. But the price may be steep: He would be under intense pressure to permanently change the system that has given his party an electoral advantage.

Britain's voting system is under the most intense scrutiny in a generation, largely thanks to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats — the centrist, and perennially third-ranked, party who have swept ahead of Labour in opinion polls on the back of telegenic leader Nick Clegg's show-stopping performances in TV debates.

For the first time since the 1930s, Britain appears to have a third credible contender to form a government.

But analysts find that the way Clegg's likely voters, too, are distributed around the country, means his party could win a third of the popular vote yet claim only about 100 of the 650 House of Commons seats.

"I don't think after this election it will ever be possible to put the genie back in the bottle," said Clegg, who demands a European-style voting system that would permanently enhance his party's chances.

Wooing the Liberal Democrats could be critical in a Parliament without a majority. Although the law does allow a "minority government" to rule, in order to govern effectively, enjoy a moral mandate and pass legislation, it would need allies and perhaps even a coalition. So Brown or Conservative Party leader David Cameron will likely need Clegg.

It raises the prospect of the first sweeping changes to Britain's electoral system since women won the vote in 1918, or the voting age dropped from 21 to 18 in the mid-1960s.

Britain uses a "first past the post" system in which the winning candidate for each of the 650 House of Commons seats does not need an absolute majority of votes. He or she just needs to finish first.

That stacks the electoral math in favor of Labour, which enjoys broad support across Britain, in contrast to the Tories who have pockets of overwhelming backing, particularly in England — which means many of those votes are, in effect, wasted.

Even a recent round of gerrymandering has failed to help the Conservatives. Analysts say changes to voting districts are based on 2001 census data, and fail to reflect the growth of Britain's sprawling suburbs — where the Conservatives traditionally win greater support.

According to one calculation, in Britain's 2005 national election it took only 27,000 votes to elect each Labour lawmaker, but 46,000 votes to elect a Conservative and 96,000 to elect a Liberal Democrat.

Other factors skewing the electoral mathematics — to the disadvantage of the Liberal Democrats also — include voting districts with significantly uneven numbers of electors, wide differences in turnout, and the impact from so-called tactical voting — where supporters of one party vote for a minor rival, in an attempt to deny a major foe a seat.

An ICM poll published late Monday reflected this. It showed the Conservatives likely to claim 33 percent of votes, the Liberal Democrats 30 percent and Labour 28 percent. An analysis of the figures shows they would give Brown's party a slight edge in seats over Cameron's, and way ahead of Clegg's.

The survey questioned 1,031 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percent.

"It's just preposterous, the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in No. 10 and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister of the country," Clegg said.

He demands a move to proportional representation — in which electors rank candidates in order of preference — the dominant system in Europe, where most governments involve coalitions between parties. In such a system, with a third of the vote he'd have a third of the seats, and could even be premier.

That would suggest he would more likely support Labour in a hung parliament — because Cameron, fearing a perpetual Labour-Liberal Democrat alliance, is far more vehement in opposing proportional representation.

"He is only interested in one thing," Cameron said of Clegg's demands. "That is changing our electoral system so we have a permanent hung parliament, we have a permanent coalition."

But on the other hand Clegg's economic views — he demands tough action to cut Britain's 152.84 billion pounds ($235.9 billion) deficit — are closer to Cameron's.

Clegg has so far declined to specify who he would back in a hung Parliament.

Though his party is traditionally closer to the center-left Labour Party — and joined a brief pact in 1977 — Clegg claims a third-placed Brown would lack a moral mandate to remain in office.

Under one scenario being discussed in the anterooms and pubs of Britain, Clegg might even demand Brown be replaced by another Labour leader as the price for allowing the party another term at the helm after 13 years in power.

Clegg suggested this weekend that, in any case, a third placed Brown would be ousted by his own party. Many suggest that Labour's Foreign Secretary David Miliband or interior minister Alan Johnson would be acceptable alternatives for Clegg.

Meanwhile, many voters are scratching their heads.

"I don't really understand it, and I don't really know how my vote can actually influence who runs this country," said Sara Barnett, a 24-year-old student.

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Associated Press Writer Sylvia Hui contributed to this report.