Britain began a long, tense election night Thursday after the closest poll race for decades, with polls showing the opposition Conservatives ahead but falling short of a clear majority.
With the result too close to call, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour Party retains a chance of staying in power, perhaps in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Reuters said.
Polling stations were due to close at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT), when exit poll forecasts were due. Early results could start coming in as soon as an hour later, but the bulk are expected to be declared from around 3:00 am.
The final result may not be known until much later if all hangs on a handful of seats, as some two dozen constituencies are not expected to be declared before noon on Friday.
Whoever wins will have to deal with a record budget deficit running in excess of 11 percent of national output, and demands for political reform following a parliamentary expenses scandal last year which left Britons disgusted with lawmakers.
More than 44 million voters were eligible to cast ballots, with observers predicting turnout could be as high as 70 percent after an unusual campaign transformed by the first televised leaders' debates in a British election.
"The TV debates made the campaign more interesting ... I think there will be more people voting, more interest -- I hope so anyway," said engineer Malcolm Evans, emerging from a polling station in Witney in central England, the constituency of Conservative leader David Cameron.
His centre-right Conservatives have seen a commanding poll lead dwindle since the turn of the year, with voters seemingly reluctant to embrace the change they say they offer after 13 years of Labour rule.
Markets want a clear-cut result and fear that a stalemate could lead to political paralysis, hampering efforts to tackle the nation's spiralling debt and secure recovery from the worst recession since World War Two.
The equation has been made more complex by a surge in support for the Lib Dems, energised by strong performances in the TV debates by leader Nick Clegg, who shares Cameron's relative youth -- they are both 43 -- and easy manner.
Smiling and waving
After weeks of frenzied campaigning, polling was subdued.
The only note of drama was an accident involving anti-EU politician Nigel Farage, who received minor injuries when the light aircraft he was travelling in crashed. The UK Independence Party banner it was trailing may have gotten tangled in the plane's engine, media reports said.
The likeliest outcome of voting is a "hung parliament" in which no party wins an outright majority in the 650-seat house. Britain has not had an inconclusive election since 1974 and unlike other European countries does not have a tradition of coalition rule.
Sterling hit a near nine-month high on Wednesday against a euro weakened by the crisis in Greece. However, analysts say the markets could turn their fire on British assets should efforts to form a government prove protracted and messy.
Brown and out?
Brown's Labour party has shown some improvement in the latest polls and the quirks of the British parliamentary system mean it could finish third in terms of vote share and still remain the largest bloc in parliament.
That scenario could leave the Lib Dems holding the balance of power and certain to press their case for electoral reform to a more proportional system. Other minor parties could also find themselves playing a significant role.
Clegg has said he would find it hard to do a deal with Brown if Labour does finish third, but has not ruled out working with an alternative Labour leader, or with the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems share Labour's concern that spending cuts should not be imposed until economic recovery is established and Labour are more open to electoral reform than the Conservatives.
The Conservatives have promised to cut the deficit harder and faster than Labour and to squeeze out 6 billion pounds ($9 billion) in efficiency savings in the current year.
Labour has warned voters that this could cost jobs and jeopardise the recovery but independent commentators say the figures are tiny compared with a forecast deficit this year of 163 billion pounds ($252 billion).
Independent think-tanks have accused all the parties of failing to be open with voters about the scale of cuts that will be needed to restore public finances.
Polls close at 2100 GMT and exit polls broadcast immediately afterwards will give the first indication of the outcome, with results coming in from up and down the country through the night and well into Friday.
AgenciesLast Mod: 07 Mayıs 2010, 12:56