Australia is in political deadlock after national elections seem almost certain to deliver the country's first hung parliament since World War II. Exit polls and partial results show that neither side, the governing Labor Party nor the conservative Liberal-National opposition is likely to get the clear majority in parliament needed to form a new government.
Senior Labor Party figures concede they cannot form a majority government, while opposition strategists still believe they can win outright with a handful of seats yet to be declared.
Analysts say the most likely outcome is a hung parliament, where the balance of power would rest with a handful of Green and independent MPs in the 150-member House of Representatives.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party told supporters in the southern city of Melbourne that it could be days before the final election result was known.
If Ms. Gillard is to claim victory, and become Australia's first elected female prime minister, she is almost certain to need the support of independent lawmakers and is already reaching out to them.
"I have had a good track record in the federal parliament working positively and productively with the independents in the House of Representatives and working with the Greens in the Senate," said Gillard. "I believe in respecting the role of every representative in the House of Representatives including the independents and the Greens."
There are unmistakable signs that the Gillard government has been punished by voters. There have been many factors at play. The ruthless fashion in which the former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own party two months ago has been of great concern to many Australians.
A lack of action on climate change may also have contributed to a sharp decline in Labor's support in the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales.
The Liberal-National opposition leader Tony Abbott has also run a mostly solid and energetic campaign focusing on immigration and the economy.
Analysts say that Abbott may find it easier to form a coalition government because most of the independent lawmakers who are likely to hold the balance of power are on the conservative side of Australian politics. However, tradition may dictate that the governing Labor Party be given the first opportunity to form a minority administration.
Abbott said it was clear the Labor government had lost its legitimacy.
A hung parliament would be Australia's first since 1940.
14 million Australians were eligible to cast a ballot in a country where voting is compulsory.