Australian election winner unclear after tightest vote in 50 years; results could take a week

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — It could take more than a week to learn who will govern Australia after a cliffhanger election — the closest in nearly 50 years — and the winner may have to woo the support of a handful of independent lawmakers in order to assume power.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister who seized power in an internal Labor Party coup only two months ago, said Saturday she will remain the nation's caretaker leader during the "anxious days ahead" as vote-counting continues.

The Australian Electoral Commission website said early Sunday that center-left Labor and the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition each had 71 seats, meaning neither could achieve the 76-seat majority.

"Obviously this is too close to call," Gillard told party faithful who gathered Saturday in her hometown Melbourne in the hope of hearing a victory speech. "We will continue to fight to form government in this country."

Liberal leader Tony Abbott said he would immediately begin negotiations with independents to form a government.

"We stand ready to govern and we stand ready to offer the Australian people stable, predictable and competent government," Abbott told supporters at Liberal campaign headquarters in Sydney.

Pundits said Australia's major foreign policy positions, including its deployment of 1,550 troops to Afghanistan, would be unaffected by whichever party wins because both hold similar views. Domestic issues vary across the large and diverse country, including hot topics such as asylum seekers, health care and climate change.

An Australian government has not relied on the support of independent lawmakers to rule since 1942, however, that may change after the extremely tight vote. The ranks of the independents in the 150-seat lower house rose from two at the last election to three, possibly four, this time around.

Two independents, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, said they would side with whichever party could provide the most stable government. A third independent, Bob Katter, said he would lend support to the side that pledges the best deal for his constituents. All three are former members of conservative parties.

The election results were expected to be the closest since 1961, when a Liberal government retained power with a single seat.

Analyst Norman Abjorensen, an Australian National University political scientist, said the most likely outcome would be an unstable minority government led by Abbott and supported by independents. Abjorensen and other analysts predicted the final count would give Abbott's coalition 73 seats — one more than Labor.

Meanwhile, the left-wing Greens party attracted a record number of voters, delivering it a rare seat in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber where parties form the government.

The Greens were also likely to increase Senate representation in the 76-seat upper chamber from five to nine senators, assuring the party a say on contentious legislation.

Gillard, a cheerfully charismatic and sharp-witted 48-year-old former lawyer, came to power in a June 24 internal Labor party coup during the first term of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, and almost immediately called elections to confirm her mandate.

Abbott, a married 52-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian, barely gained the endorsement eight months ago of his Liberal Party, which has led Australia for most of the last 60 years.

Labor swept to power at 2007 elections after 11 years in opposition with almost 53 percent of the vote. But public support dipped below 50 percent recently.

Australians have not dumped a first-term government since 1931 when a Labor administration paid the ultimate price for the Great Depression.

Gillard seized the helm of her party from Rudd after a series of poor opinion polls. The Welsh-born immigrant acknowledged before voting closed that Labor could lose its eight-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

The decision by Labor power-brokers to support Gillard — widely regarded as a better communicator than Rudd — cost the party the traditional incumbent's advantage.

One of those power-brokers, Paul Howse, said the decision was correct despite the loss of Labor votes Saturday.

"I think the parliamentary party made the right decision," Howse told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television. "Labor would have in fact done worse under a different leadership."

Abbott — whose socially conservative views alienate many women voters, but whose supporters say he can better empathize with Australian families — is his party's third choice as leader since Prime Minister John Howard led it to defeat in 2007. Abbott beat his predecessor by a single vote last December in a party ballot.

Abbott has long been seen as a gaffe-prone fitness enthusiast who is often lampooned in the media over the many images of him clad in Lycra cycling and swimming wear.


Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, contributed to this report.