Australia in political limbo after voters punish PM
by Marc Lavine
1 hr 54 mins ago
SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia was in political limbo Sunday after voters punished Prime Minister Julia Gillard for deposing her predecessor two months ago, leaving the nation facing its first hung parliament in 70 years.
Australia's first woman prime minister and opposition leader Tony Abbott were both scrambling to broker deals to form a fragile coalition government after Australians Saturday stripped Gillard of her right to rule alone.
As vote-counting continued, Gillard, who toppled predecessor Kevin Rudd in a brutal party coup, was lagging behind her conservative challenger by 70 seats to 72, with 78 percent of the ballots counted, public broadcaster ABC said.
The stunning fall from grace of the centre-left Labor Party government has left Liberal/National leader Abbott poised on the brink of power if he can cobble together a coalition government.
"The Labor Party has definitely lost its majority," Abbott told jubilant supporters late Saturday in what appeared to be a barely restrained victory speech.
"What that means is that the government has lost its legitimacy. And I say that (it) will never be able to govern effectively in a minority," he told the cheering and clapping crowd in Sydney.
Labor is expected to garner 72 seats and the opposition coalition 73, with one going to the Greens and four to independents, the ABC said.
The shock outcome denies both major parties the 76-seat majority needed to govern outright.
Former lawyer Gillard, 48, conceded her party would not be able to govern in its own right after a massive 5.5 percent swing against Labor, especially in Rudd's home state of Queensland and in New South Wales.
"The people have spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine exactly what they have said," Gillard told supporters in Melbourne.
She warned of "anxious days ahead" as both parties woo the independents and Greens, now expected to hold the balance of power.
Analysts said the government could be deadlocked for up to two weeks as parties horse-trade for leadership of the 150-seat lower house, after Gillard's Labor became the first single-term government since 1932.
It is an extraordinary reverse for Labor, which swept to power in a 2007 landslide under Rudd but then enraged voters by dumping the then-prime minister in June, after his approval ratings slumped.
Gillard quickly called elections, hoping for a honeymoon with voters, but ran a chaotic, leak-plagued campaign which failed to capitalise on Labor's big achievement -- helping Australia avoid a recession during the financial crisis.
The electoral upset that robbed Labor of its majority was "a referendum on the political execution of a prime minister" by Labor's factional leaders, Abbott said, urging his supporters not to be triumphalist.
Voters were also incensed by Labor's decision to shelve an emissions trading scheme, the centrepiece of its drive against climate change, after failing to push it through parliament.
Around 14 million electors took part in a mandatory vote for the lower house and half the 76-seat Senate.
Results showed voters turning on Labor and giving stronger support for the Greens, which took more than 11 percent of the vote -- a record for them.
Greens candidate Adam Bandt, who won the inner city seat of Melbourne for the party, said their success was a "resounding verdict" on the climate change policies of the major parties.
Gillard, a former lawyer and "Ten Pound Pom" who was born in Wales, had pledged better education and healthcare and played up Labor's handling of the economy during the global financial crisis.
Abbott, a 52-year-old religious conservative who has doubts about mankind's role in climate change, targeted fears over illegal immigration and questioned Labor's spending record, as well as Gillard's knifing of Rudd.
Both sides targeted marginal seats in resource-rich Queensland and western Sydney, where rapid population growth has put pressure on services and raised concerns about immigration.