AFP: Early Australia results make election too close to call18 May 2019 | 15:24 | FOCUS News Agency
The ruling Liberal-National coalition and Labor party were neck-and-neck, according to Australian Electoral Commission projections, with many battlegrounds yet to declare.
Exit polls had pointed to a win for Labor after six years of conservative rule, but early results showed a fractured electorate with minor populist and rightwing parties playing an outsized role.
With voting mandatory in Australia, around 16.4 million people are believed to have cast their ballots across the vast island-continent.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, voting in Melbourne, was bullish about forming a majority government after a final poll before the election showed the lead for his party increasing.
"Today is the people's day," he said. "Be it buying a 'democracy sausage', the kids having a bit of a sugar cake or what have you, and voting," he added, referring to the tradition of serving grilled sausages on election day.
"In the event that the people of Australia voted to stop the chaos and voted for action on climate change, we will be ready to hit the ground from tomorrow."
But as results from the northeastern state of Queensland trickled in, it became clear the Liberals had done better than expected.
Weeks ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been heading for an electoral drubbing.
But he has closed the gap with a negative campaign and backing from the country's biggest media organisation -- owned by Rupert Murdoch -- mainly targeting older, wealthier voters who face fewer tax breaks under Labor.
After casting his vote in the Sydney suburbs, Morrison acknowledged the challenge his coalition faced, saying: "I don't take anyone's support in this country for granted."
"Australians know very well what it is we are saying in terms of keeping our economy strong, keeping our budget under control... keeping Australians safe and secure," he said, hitting the conservatives' key talking points against Labor.
Climate change had featured prominently throughout the campaign.
Australia is one of the most vulnerable of all developed nations to climate change and a season of record floods, wildfires and droughts has brought the issue from the political fringes to front and centre of the campaign.
In traditionally more conservative rural areas, climate-hit farmers are increasingly demanding action, while in several rich suburbs, a generational shift has seen eco-minded candidates running Liberal party luminaries close.
In northern Sydney, former prime minister Tony Abbott -- who once described climate change as "crap" -- lost a seat he has held for a quarter century to independent challenger Zali Steggall, a lawyer and Olympic medallist in Alpine skiing.
While admitting his own defeat, mainly over the climate issue, Abbott claimed there had been a "realignment" in Australian politics with Liberals winning more of the working class vote, adding: "I'm not going to let one bad day spoil 25 years".
- Candidates egged -
The national campaign has been an often ill-tempered pitched-battle. Candidates have been egged and abused, and a slew have resigned for racist, sexist and otherwise jaw-dropping social media posts.
In Abbott's battleground seat, a 62-year-old man was arrested and charged with thrusting a corkscrew into the stomach of someone putting up campaign banners on the eve of the election.
If Morrison wins, it would be a monumental upset, having scrapped for his political life in the hope of not entering the history books as one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in Australian history.
He took office last August after a party room coup by conservative hardliners that ousted moderate, pro-climate leader Malcolm Turnbull -- the latest in a series of political fratricides that have made Canberra politics look like "Game of Thrones" meets "The Hunger Games".
Much of Morrison's cabinet resigned before the election or went into virtual hiding during the campaign because of their unpopularity.
If Shorten is elected, he would become the sixth prime minister sworn into office in a decade.
The former union leader has struggled with low personal approval ratings, but became a more polished campaigner as the election neared.
Still, his relative lack of charisma was underlined Thursday by the death of much-loved former prime minister Bob Hawke, an Oxford-educated lovable rogue, equally at home chugging a pint or debating Keynesian economics.
Due to Australia's complex system where voters must rank all candidates in each electorate, officials said it could take hours after the polls close before the election outcome is known.
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