October 21, 2016

Australia heads for minority government as early polls show tight race

Surfers walk past an election poster promoting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull outside a voting station located in the South Bondi Lifesaving Club, at Sydney’s Bondi Beach

Early counting in Australia’s national election on Saturday showed a swing to the opposition Labor Party, adding to fears a close vote will deny current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull the outright majority he needs to enact major economic reforms.

The leader of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party-led coalition dissolved both houses of parliament in May in a bid to oust intransigent independents in the upper house Senate who had blocked his agenda, including company tax cuts.

But Turnbull’s gamble is at risk of backfiring as the coalition faces a strong challenge not only from the main opposition Labour Party but from independents who could win enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate or force a minority government in the lower house.

In early counting after polls closed in the east of the country, the Electoral Commission reported a 2.32 percent swing to the Labour Party on a two party count with the coalition. Labour requires a uniform swing of about 4 percent to win government.

In the Macarthur electorate in western Sydney, a key battleground, Labour recorded a double-digit swing with almost 10 per cent of the vote counted. The seat is currently held by the Liberals.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp predicted 52 seats to the coalition, 45 to Labour and five seats to others with 48 seats undecided. With 150 seats in the House of Representatives, the coalition requires 76 seats to maintain outright power, otherwise it will need to form alliances with small parties and independents.

Polls were still open in several states and the electoral commission has warned that the results of the upper house Senate voting, where there are 76 seats, may not be known for days.

Turnbull has invoked Brexit fears in his campaigning, arguing that minor parties, possibly in a coalition with centre-left Labour, could not be trusted to manage an economy hampered by the first mining downturn in a century and balance public finances after years of deficits.

Voting is compulsory in Australia and changes to voting for the Senate were blamed for long queues at some polling booths.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has spearheaded an opposition campaign focusing on coalition cuts to health and education policies.

Centrist independent Nick Xenophon is a serious threat for the coalition in Adelaide, one of the key areas that could help swing the overall result.

Asked if he would allow the government to immediately pass its cornerstone A$50 billion ($37 billion) corporate tax cuts if his party held the balance of power in the senate, Xenophon said: “No. They need to sort out the future of manufacturing in this country and the many tens of thousands of jobs that are affected by it.”

Far-right parties, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, have campaigned on anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agendas. Hanson is also strong contender to win a position in the Senate.

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