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Australia election conundrum: Who won?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — The closest Australia election for decades ended inconclusively on Saturday, with no party securing a parliamentary majority and analysts Sunday predicting weeks of political uncertainty and possibly even a fresh election.

Counting in several tightly fought seats will not conclude until later this week, but the governing Labor Party and opposition conservative Coalition have acknowledged that neither of them is likely to end up with 76 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives, or lower house.

With Australia’s first hung parliament for 70 years the most likely eventual outcome, the two major parties have already begun negotiations with a five-strong group of independent and Greens Party politicians who could help them form a minority government.

With 78 percent of the vote counted, the Australian Electoral Commission said Sunday that Labor – led by the country’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard – had won 70 seats and the Coalition 71.

Whom will the independents back?
Three independents had been elected, and a fourth was likely, while the small Greens Party had secured its first seat ever in the lower house.

The three independents, who all represent rural areas, held talks yesterday, and indicated that they were likely to throw their combined weight behind one or other party. “We get on very well together, we work very closely together, we have similar backgrounds,” Bob Katter, who represents a north Queensland electorate, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

However, neither he nor the others gave a hint as to which party they might end up supporting. Although all are from a conservative background, analysts say they will not necessarily choose the Coalition. “They may well want to go with Labor because of broadband,” says John Wanna, a professor at the Australian National University, referring to the party’s promise to build a $34 billion, high-speed national broadband network.

Rural Australians and their pollitical representatives often complain that their communications networks are inferior to those in urban areas.

What kind of change do voters want?
Both Ms. Gillard and the Coalition leader, Tony Abbott, held preliminary talks Sunday with the three elected independents, the possible fourth, and the Greens MP. Speaking publicly, Gillard noted that Labor had won more votes overall than the Coalition, which she said was “a critical factor to weigh in the coming days.”

However, Abbott said that the “savage swing” against Labor – which dumped its own leader, Kevin Rudd, two months ago in favor of Ms Gillard – made clear that voters wanted a change of government. “It’s certain that any Labor government … will be chronically divided and dysfunctional,” he said.

Who are the power brokers?
The disparate Green/independent group that will determine who governs Australia includes Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst who resigned his job before the Iraq war in 2003. Mr. Wilkie then publicly aired concerns that intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction was being misrepresented by the Australian government in order to bolster its case for contributing troops.

Mr. Katter, who represents a North Queensland electorate, is a stetson-wearing maverick who is opposed to cheap banana imports and wants to protect the right of rural-dwellers “to go fishing and camping and hunting and shooting.”

A new vote?
Mr. Wanna expects a new government to emerge by the end of this week, but other analysts are more pessimistic. Even if a deal is struck, a minority government might not survive the full three-year term. Peter Costello, a former senior conservative politician, warned Sunday: “It’s quite possible, with an unstable situation like this, that we could be back to the polls within a year.”

If the current negotiations fail altogether, Australia would be constitutionally obliged to hold another election soon – although this scenario is considered unlikely.
David Burchell, an expert in Australian politics based at the University of Western Sydney, said that a hung parliament was the “nightmare scenario we all feared”, and a minority government was unlikely to last longer than 18 months.

“Neither [party] will be able to pass … a significant body of legislation other than budget bills,” he told Agence France-Presse. “They would have to be negotiating with the independents and minorities – or most of them – probably every single time, and Los Angeles-style gridlock, I guess, is what would result.”

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