Britons turn out in force for history-making vote


In an electrifying race that could change the face of British politics, voters turned out in droves Thursday for an election that could return the party of rightwing icon Margaret Thatcher to power after a long stretch in the political wilderness.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party was trailing in the polls against Conservative David Cameron, with Nick Clegg of the perennially third-placed Liberal Democrats gunning for a historic strong showing that could catapult his party into the ranks of the heavyweights.

Initial results were to be beamed onto Big Ben’s tower with a bar graph showing the colors of the main parties and what share of the vote they had won.

Polls point to a “hung Parliament,” a rare situation for Britain in which no party wins the absolute majority of seats — 326 out of 650 — needed to rule effectively. That could trigger weeks of political uncertainty and undermine the country’s chances of economic recovery.

The stakes are high: Under Brown, Britain’s once high-flying economy, rooted in world-leading financial services, has run into hard times. The nation creaks under mountains of public debt and fears are rife that Greece’s financial crisis could spread and infect the United Kingdom. That could unsettle global markets as well.

On the eve of the vote came a somber warning from the European Union: Britain’s budget deficit is set to eclipse even that of Greece next year.

Turnout was expected to be higher than the 61 percent in 2005, suggesting keen interest in the campaign.

While Cameron has for months maintained a lead in the polls, he has also had difficulty convincing voters that his brand of eco-friendly “compassionate Conservatism” has truly broken with Thatcher’s legacy of leading what was often called “the nasty party.”

“Labour have done awful things, but I don’t want a Thatcherite … government, and I can’t vote for the Liberal Democrats — they’re weak Tories,” said 81-year-old Sybil Ashton, referring to the Conservatives by their nickname.

Brown doggedly campaigned until the last moment, tirelessly hammering out the message that he’s the safest choice to lead his nation to economic salvation. But the campaign ended with doubts about his character and leadership. In the biggest gaffe of the campaign, he was caught on an open microphone referring to an elderly voter as a “bigoted woman” and was then forced to visit her home to apologize profusely.

Cameron finished off his campaign with a 36-hour marathon crisscrossing the country, urging his supporters not to be complacent. Cameron struggled in his own way — in a campaign widely seen as his to lose, the posh former public relations executive tended to come across as too polished and hardly captivated the masses.

The Liberal Democrats, the U.K.’s longtime third party, has found new momentum under the boyish, articulate Clegg — who has charmed voters by appearing more natural than Cameron and friendlier than Brown.

The 43-year-old Clegg captured attention with sterling performances in the nation’s first-ever televised debates — which gave his party unprecedented equal billing with the two main parties. He also capitalized on voter mistrust following a lawmaker expense abuse scandal by promising to overhaul the political system.

Britain’s newspapers, as ever, staked out clear positions with partisan fervor.

Tabloids started the day with the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror running a picture of Cameron along with the words, “Prime Minister? Really?” The Sun, meanwhile, superimposed Cameron’s face onto President Barack Obama’s multicolored poster, with a headline that read “Our Only Hope.”

Bookies said they had taken a record number of bets on the election — about 25 million pounds ($37 million) worth. One person bet 5,000 pounds ($7,500) that Labour would win a majority, according to bookmaker William Hill. The odds were 14 to 1 — meaning a 75,000 pound ($112,000) pot if Brown wins.

A few months ago, many believed the Conservatives had victory sealed. But then a political storm began to brew.

An embarrassing expense scandal last year enraged voters after lawmakers were caught being reimbursed for everything from imaginary mortgages to moat cleaning at country estates. Trust in British politics dropped to a record low.

And although lawmakers from all three parties were involved, the backlash was most severe for Britain’s old guard, the Conservatives and Labour.

Labour’s popularity has been slipping since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, especially after Blair joined the United States in invading Iraq. It then took another nose-dive after the unpopular Brown became leader in 2007. Brown stalled in calling an election, hoping the economy would turn around.

This spring, the biggest game-changer was Britain’s first-ever televised debates.

Britons eager for change took a look — many for the first time — at Clegg, the son of an investment banker who called for an overhaul of British politics. His easy charm and relaxed demeanor outshone Cameron and added to nagging worries over how much the Tory leader actually had overhauled the stodgy Conservatives.

The 43-year-old Cameron has also been hampered by his own elite background. Eton-educated and married to an aristocrat’s daughter, many question whether he can relate to an electorate that has endured 1.3 million layoffs and tens of thousands of foreclosures over the past year and a half.

The Tories have focused attention — and money — on dozens of seats where Labour and the Liberal Democrats seemed vulnerable.

To win, they must take their top 100 target seats to get a majority, said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds.

But she said anti-Conservative sentiment could hamper that, and dissatisfaction with Labour could help the Liberal Democrats instead.

“They need to nail at last 100 of those to get close to having a working majority,” she said. “But some of those seats are unwinnable.”

A Conservative majority would likely lead to a stock market rally and a boost for the British pound because the Tories favor tackling the deficit more aggressively than Labour. But even a Labour majority could see a rally because it would erase uncertainty.

The impact of a hung Parliament — not seen since 1974 — is far less certain.

Some analysts suggest fears about delayed action on the deficit could weigh on Britain’s currency and stocks.

The vote’s enduring legacy may be its potential to forever change the way Britain elects its leaders.

The main goal of the Liberal Democrats is to overhaul the centuries-old electoral system to proportional representation. The change would give the Liberal Democrats a place in government for years to come — and favor center-left coalitions. Cameron’s Conservatives could be shut out of power for decades.

The system that Clegg wants to overhaul, in which the number of districts won — not the popular vote — determines who runs the country, could produce odd outcomes: Labour, which benefits from the way its supporters are distributed around the country, could win far fewer votes than the Conservatives, yet more seats.

And the Liberal Democrats could finish second, ahead of a crushed Labour Party, yet have only a fraction of Labour’s seats.

Furthermore, there is no clear road map for what happens if no party has an absolute majority — only convention, and the sense that politicians will take into account what the country would see as legitimate.

Tradition holds that in the event of a hung Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II offers the sitting prime minister the first chance to try to form a government — even if his party wins fewer seats than the opposition.

In such a scenario, Clegg could find himself with the balance of power. The backing of his expected bloc of about 80 seats in a coalition would give Cameron or Brown the ability to form a government and pass laws.

Nonetheless, each could try to form a minority government, which could govern but would always be in danger of being felled by a no-confidence motion.

“There’s still a lot of head-scratching going around, and that might not change for weeks,” says Steven Fielding, a political analyst from Nottingham University.

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