Polling stations in the U.K. opened early Thursday for voting in what could be the tightest general election in a decade — and one destined to result in a hung Parliament, prompting a messy scramble to form a coalition.
Final opinion surveys showed Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and Ed Miliband's opposition Labour Party almost in a dead heat, indicating neither one will win enough seats for an outright majority in the 650-seat Parliament.
Such a result would leave the U.K.’s smaller parties holding the keys to government, with Labour marginally thought the more likely to be able to cobble together a minority-led government, potentially relying on the support of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).
The strength of the SNP could bring Scottish independence back to the fore, despite the party’s losing a referendum on the matter in September. The U.K.’s future in the European Union could also hang on the result of Thursday’s elections, with the Conservative Party pledging an in/out vote on British membership.
But going into Election Day, it was uncertain which of the two main parties would come out with the upper hand.
“This race is going to be the closest we have ever seen,” Miliband told supporters in Pendle in northern England on the eve of the vote. “It is going to go down to the wire.”
Cameron argued that only his Conservatives could deliver strong, stable government, saying, “All other options will end in chaos.”
The prime minister has tried to position the Tories as the party of jobs and economic recovery, promising to reduce income taxes for 30 million people while forcing through further spending cuts to eliminate a budget deficit still running at 5 percent of GDP.
Labour says it would cut the deficit each year, raise income tax for the highest 1 percent of earners and defend the interests of hard-pressed working families and Britain's treasured but financially stretched National Health Service.
“I think Labour is best for the good of the whole country. The Conservatives have cut spending too much,” said student Abi Samuel at a polling station in Edinburgh's well-heeled New Town.
Retiree Robert McCairley said it has been a messy campaign. “What disappoints me is that there was too much on the National Health Service, hospitals and schools but not enough on the deficit. No one showed us the figures,” he said.
If neither party wins a majority in Parliament, talks will begin on Friday with smaller parties in a race to strike deals.
That could lead to a formal coalition, like the one Cameron has led for the past five years with the centrist Liberal Democrats — a party likely to fare badly in today’s vote — or it could produce a fragile minority government making trade-offs to guarantee support on key votes.
The Labour Party has ruled out a formal coalition with the Scottish nationalists. But it could form a workable minority government under a less formal deal with the SNP.
An opinion poll released on Thursday showed the two main parties tied, with Labour wiping out a 2-point lead by the Conservatives recorded by the same pollster earlier this week.
Of seven polls released on the last day before voting, three showed the two main parties level, three put the Conservatives ahead by a single percentage point, and one gave Labour a 2-point lead.
Leading pollster Peter Kellner of YouGov predicted the Conservatives would end up with 284 seats to Labour's 263, with the SNP on 48, Liberal Democrats 31, the anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) two, Greens one and Welsh and Northern Irish parties 21.
If that proves correct, either of the two big parties will need support from at least two smaller ones to get laws through Parliament, as the SNP has ruled out any deal with Cameron.
If a durable government is not formed, Britain could face political instability and even a second election.
The fractured polls show Britain's post–World War II political consensus — during which the Conservatives and Labour took turns in government — is crumbling as once marginal parties in Scotland and England get millions of votes.
Scottish nationalists are likely to win the lion's share of seats in Scotland, capturing dozens from Labour and making Miliband's chances of winning a majority much slimmer.
In England, UKIP has courted Conservative and Labour voters and is likely to do more damage to Cameron's chances of a majority, despite his promising a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union by the end of 2017 in an attempt to reassure Conservative voters considering straying.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the United Kingdom's 48 million voters and close at 10 p.m. An exit poll will be published as soon as polls close, and most results are expected in the early hours of Friday.
Al Jazeera and wire services