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UK braces for nail-biter election as party leaders scramble for votes

Stakes are high in ballot that could influence course of European Union and national cohesion

Campaigning in the U.K.’s most unpredictable election for a generation entered a final day Wednesday, with rival political leaders scrambling for votes across the country as polls suggest no party will be able to command a majority in parliament — an outcome that could lead to messy attempts to cobble together a coalition.

Neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party nor Ed Miliband's opposition Labour has opened up a lead after weeks of campaigning, handing a fillip to smaller parties in the race which have traditionally been sidelined in Britain’s first-past-the-post system.

The parliamentary strength of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in particular could be crucial in the post-ballot wrangling over who will govern the country, with Labour thought by some to be marginally the more likely to lead a government, but only with help from the SNP and others. Miliband has consistently ruled out a formal coalition with the Scottish nationalists, but an informal deal may still be possible.

Polls suggest the SNP could emerge as the third largest party, despite losing a plebiscite last year on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom.

The stakes in the election are higher than usual not only because of the possible impact it could have on national cohesion, but also because Britain's future in the European Union may well hinge on the election outcome.

Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on whether to stay in or quit the EU if he returns to power.

“The consequences if you take a wrong turn could at its worst — and I'm not predicting this — mean that within a matter of years, two unions which are pivotal to the prosperity and way of life of everybody in Britain are lost,” Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, told Reuters during the campaign.

Five years ago, Britain got its first coalition government since World War II when Cameron fell short of an overall majority and struck a deal with Clegg's centrist party to govern together to steady the economy.

Many Britons thought that was a one-off. But the rise of formerly fringe parties such as the SNP and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has fragmented the political landscape, siphoning off support from the two main parties.

Of five opinion polls released on Tuesday, the Conservatives led in two, Labour in one, and two showed them neck-and-neck.

UKIP suffered embarrassment when it was forced to suspend one of its candidates for threatening to “put a bullet“ in his Conservative rival.

The big party leaders have avoided game-changing gaffes but drawn mockery at times: Cameron for forgetting the name of his favorite soccer team, and Miliband for engraving his campaign pledges on a giant stone, prompting ironic comparisons with Moses.

Cameron, who is banking on a perception that the Tories are better placed to steer the economy to get him re-elected, will make his final pitch to voters as he rounds off a two-day road trip.

Stagnant polls have prompted him to refine his message, blending the promise of higher living standards with a warning that Scottish nationalists could hold ransom a minority Labour government, cajoling it to spend and borrow more.

“Tomorrow, the British people make their most important decision for a generation,” Cameron will say on Wednesday, according to advance excerpts released by his office.

Awkwardly for the prime minister, a leading think tank cut its forecast for Britain's economic growth in 2015 on Wednesday, though it said strong consumer spending should keep the recovery on track.

Miliband, who has put the future of the country's treasured National Health Service — deemed by many to be under threat from Cameron’s austerity agenda — at the heart of his campaign, will address a final election rally in northern England on Wednesday evening.

“This is the choice at the election: a Labour government that will put working people first or a government that will stand up only for a privileged few,” he will say.

Over 45 million Britons are eligible to vote on Thursday, when polls will be open from 0600 to 2100 GMT _ 2 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT.

Ballots will be cast in around 50,000 polling stations dotted around the country, including in unusual places such as pubs, garages and sports stadiums, among others.

If the election results are not decisive as widely expected, negotiations between the parties could start immediately, although they may be delayed by ceremonies for the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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