SYDNEY – With the results of Australia's stunningly close national election potentially weeks away, Australia's prime minister and opposition leader were expected to spend Monday trying to drum up support from minor parties in desperate bids to form a working government.
The country was facing the prospect of a dreaded hung parliament after Saturday's elections, which failed to deliver an immediate victor. With about a quarter of the votes left to be counted, neither Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's conservative Liberal Party-led coalition nor the center-left Labor Party had secured the required 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives to form a government.
Turnbull, who is pinning his hopes on mail-in and early ballots that traditionally favor the conservatives, said he remained quietly confident of an eventual victory.
Turnbull's coalition could indeed still win by a slim margin, though with a reduced majority. But with Labor and the Liberals in a virtual tie, there was a possibility neither would end up with enough seats to form a majority government, resulting in a hung parliament.
That would force the Liberals and Labor to try to strike alliances with independent and minor party lawmakers in a bid to form a minority government. If no alliance can be forged, the government could end up calling yet another election.
In the wake of the chaos, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten called on the prime minister to resign.
"Mr. Turnbull clearly doesn't know what he is doing. Quite frankly, I think he should quit," Shorten told reporters. "He has taken this nation to an election on the basis of stability. He has delivered instability.... The bloke is not up to the job."
As of Monday, Australian Broadcasting Corp. election analysts — considered among the most reliable — were predicting that Labor and the coalition were tied at 67 seats each and minor parties were leading in five seats. Another 11 seats were in doubt.
Counting by the Australian Electoral Commission was on hold until Tuesday, with Turnbull warning that the ultimate result may not be known until the end of the week. The electoral commission said it may take up to a month.
With the possibility of a hung parliament looming, Turnbull and Shorten both said they had contacted the five independent lawmakers who could make up a minority government if needed. Two of those — Tasmania state independent Andrew Wilkie and Victoria state independent Cathy McGowan — said Monday they had yet to commit to either party.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said he had spoken with both leaders, describing the phone calls as simple, "G'day, let's keep in touch and see where the dust settles" conversations.
"I still think it's likely that Malcolm Turnbull might just get across the line with a one-seat majority," Xenophon told Melbourne radio station 3AW.
Shorten declined to elaborate on what any Labor deals with the independents might involve, but vowed to work with all lawmakers in a bid to restore order to the fractured parliament.
"We will work with the Liberals, we will work with the crossbenchers and the minor parties because this country, and this parliament, is too important to fall foul of needless partisanship," he said. "But we won't compromise our principles."
The lack of certainty wrought by the election continues an incredibly volatile period in Australian politics, with Monday's front page headline in Sydney's Daily Telegraph aptly blaring "CHAOS REIGNS." Weary Australians have watched as internal party squabbling and fears over flagging poll ratings have prompted five changes of prime minister in as many years.
Even if Turnbull's party wins, the country could potentially end up with yet another new prime minister. Turnbull took a gamble by opting to call the rare early election, and few had predicted his party would suffer such steep losses. The disappointing result could put him at risk for an internal leadership challenge from unhappy colleagues.
Mobbed by reporters outside his Sydney home on Monday morning, Turnbull ignored a question about whether he was still confident of his leadership, only telling journalists "the counting continues."