SYDNEY: Australians flocked to vote in national elections on Saturday with conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull appearing to have a slight edge over Labor’s Bill Shorten, marking the end of a marathon race in which economic management became the key issue after Britains shock exit of the European Union.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (2200 GMT) with some 15.6 million voters taking part in the mandatory ballot across the huge country.
After an eight-week campaign, a News poll of 4,135 people published in an Australian newspaper showed Turnbull´s Liberal/National coalition bagging 50.5 to 49.5 percent of the vote, while a poll in the Sydney Morning Herald had both candidates in a dead heat.
Shorten’s Labor needs to pick up at least 19 seats in the 150-seat parliament to secure the 76 it needs to govern on its own.
The coalition, which headed into the election with a comfortable majority, can afford to lose as many as 13 seats and still hold power. It also has the backing of the nation’s powerful media, which has cited the need for stability.
But polls are also forecasting large numbers of people voting for the Greens or other minor parties and independents, which raises the prospect of a hung parliament where no side commands a lower house majority.
Multi-millionaire former banker Turnbull, 61, is looking to bolster his power after ousting fellow Liberal Tony Abbott in a party coup last September and cast his vote at a school near his Sydney harbor-side mansion.
Ex-union chief Shorten, 49, is gunning to return Labor to office after it was thumped by the conservatives during the last election in 2013. He was due to vote in his Melbourne constituency later Saturday.
“What will decide this election is what is in the best interests for working and middle class Australia,” he said in a last-ditch bid to rally undecided voters to his platform of better health, jobs and education.
Turnbull has campaigned on tough asylum-seeker policies, a plan to hold a plebiscite on gay marriage, and his economic credentials as the country transitions from a mining investment boom and focuses on job creation and diversification.
He has also channeled the instability sparked by Britain´s shock vote to leave the European Union, warning Australia must “have the plan that meets the nature of our times, a time of opportunity and of challenge.”
Turnbull called an election early because crossbenchers – politicians who are independent or from minor parties – hold the balance of power in the upper house Senate.
They have failed to pass deadlocked legislation to overhaul unions, which provided the trigger for a double dissolution of parliament, after which all seats in the upper and lower houses become contested.
But some experts are suggesting the upper house could end up with more crossbenchers after the election than before, as voters fed up with traditional politicians look for alternatives.
Most polls close at 6:00 pm (0800 GMT) Sydney time with the remainder two hours later due to time differences in a country where people overwhelmingly abide by their obligation to vote.