By ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The opposition Labor Party appeared more likely than Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition to form government after Australia’s election on Saturday that could result in a rare hung parliament.
Center-left Labor could still form a majority government, based on early vote counting, lawmakers and analysts said. But the coalition’s only hope was to form a minority administration in a hung parliament.
“A Labor majority in our own right is, I think it’s very clear, the most likely outcome of this election,” senior Labor lawmaker Chris Bowen told Seven Network
Former Defense Minister Chris Pyne, who retired from Morrison’s government in the last election, also ruled out the coalition scoring enough seats to form a majority government. “The coalition can’t get there in its own right, no,” he said.
The government was seeking a fourth three-year term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s party ended the six-week campaign as a favorite to win its first election since 2007. But Morrison defied the opinion polls in 2019 by leading his coalition to a narrow victory.
His coalition holds the narrowest of majorities — 76 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government.
In early counting on Saturday, the coalition was on track to win 38 seats, Labor 71, seven were unaligned lawmakers and 23 were too close to call.
Minor parties and independents appeared to be taking votes from the major parties, which increases the likelihood of a hung parliament and a minority government.
Australia most recent hung parliaments were from 2010-13, and during World War II.
A record proportion of postal votes because of the pandemic, which won’t be added to the count until Sunday, adds to the uncertainty in early counting.
As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party fought off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to key government lawmakers’ reelection in party strongholds.
At least four Liberal lawmakers appeared to have lost their seats to teal independents including Liberal Party deputy leader Josh Frydenberg, who had been considered Morrison’s most likely successor.
“What we have achieved here is extraordinary,” teal candidate and former foreign correspondent Zoe Daniels said in her victory speech. “Safe Liberal seat. Two-term incumbent. Independent,” she added.
The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue color and want stronger government action on reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
The goverment’s Senate leader Simon Birmingham was concerned by big swings toward several teal candidates.
“It is a clear problem that we are losing seats that are heartland seats, that have defined the Liberal Party for generations,” Birmingham said.
“If we lose those seats — it is not certain that we will — but there is clearly a big movement against us and there is clearly a big message in it,” Birmingham added.
The first polling stations closed on the country’s east coast at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT). The west coast is two hours behind.
Due to the pandemic, around half of Australia’s 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes, which will likely slow the count.
Voting is compulsory for adult citizens and 92% of registered voters cast ballots at the last election.
Early polling for reasons of travel or work began two weeks ago and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue collecting postal votes for another two weeks.
The government changed regulations on Friday to enable people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote over the phone.
Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said more than 7,000 polling stations opened as planned and on time across Australia despite 15% of polling staff falling sick this week with COVID-19 and flu.
Albanese said he had thought Morrison would have called the election last weekend because Australia’s prime minister is expected at a Tokyo summit on Tuesday with U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If we get a clear outcome today then whoever is prime minister will be on a plane to Tokyo on Monday, which isn’t ideal, I’ve got to say, immediately after a campaign,” Albanese said.
Analysts have said that Morrison left the election until the latest date available to him to give himself more time to reduce Labor’s lead in opinion polls.
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