Britain's parliamentary elections on May 6 may mark the beginning of the end of the two-party electoral system that has long been the norm in British politics.
For the last 80 years, power has been customarily held by either the Labour or the Conservative parties, with any third or further parties competing for votes condemned to the margins. But that may change, with opinion polls placing the small Liberal Democrats on an equal footing with the big two.
The Liberal Democrats' fresh-faced leader, Nick Clegg, appears to have transformed the fortunes of his centrist party. He's done this through impressing the voting public in a series of televised debates with Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour's Gordon Brown, the present prime minister.
Engaging in face-to-face debating between candidates is an established feature of presidential elections in the United States, but it has not been tried before in Britain.
The result of this innovation has been electrifying. Watched by millions of Britons, the encounters revealed Clegg as a level-headed, intelligent politician with promise of sound leadership qualities. Above all, he came across as a viable alternative as prime minister to either Brown or Cameron.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown
In this campaign, Brown, never popular with the British public since he took over the leadership of Labour from Tony Blair in 2007, has presented an image of a gruff, exhausted man who is merely hanging onto office through stubbornness. His party is seen as tired after 13 years in office.
Cameron, not charismatic at the best of times, has failed to impress his personality on the Conservatives. He has been unable to hold on to the big lead in opinion polls that his party enjoyed for many months because of popular disaffection with Labour.
And there is broad disgust across the voter spectrum for the two major parties, which have been embroiled in various scandals and venal episodes.
The net result of all this is that preelection public-opinion polls show the Liberal Democrats on a par in popularity with the big parties -- behind the first-place Conservatives but around level with Labour.'There Is An Alternative'
In one of the televised debates, Clegg offered the Liberal Democrats as a fresh alternative to two tired old parties. "I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be," he said. "Now you are going to be told tonight by these two that the only choice you can make is between two old parties who have been running things for years. I'm here to persuade you there is an alternative."
Michael White, political commentator for "The Guardian," says Clegg has also benefited from the popularity of his party's finance spokesman, Vince Cable, who won public acclaim for his prescriptions for tackling the economic crisis.
"[Clegg] has had one particular piece of luck, about which he has been very grown-up, in his treasury spokesman, Dr. Vince Cable, former chief economist for Shell," White told Reuters. "He's got a real economist whom the markets respect and whom the voters respect."
Not that the surge in popularity will lead Clegg to 10 Downing Street as the next prime minister. That's because of Britain's "first-past-the-post" electoral system, which tends to squeeze out all but the two major parties. Under this system, even if the Liberal Democrats took 30 percent of the national vote, they would only end up with some 100 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron talks to supporters at a rally in East Renfrewshire.
But if the actual voting follows the direction indicated by the opinion polls, it does point to a "hung" parliament -- a parliament in which no party has a majority of seats.
That's something that is frequent in most democratic countries, where coalition-building takes place to put together a ruling majority. But in Britain, where the "first-past-the-post" system normally produces one clear winner, a hung parliament is a situation viewed with some alarm. The last time it happened was 36 years ago.
Clegg has blamed the simplistic electoral system for giving the two main parties expectations of automatically alternating in power. He also has taken a swipe at what he sees as Cameron's arrogance.
"David Cameron is already measuring the curtains in No. 10. He thinks it's his birthright to rule," Clegg said. "He thinks he's entitled to just waft into No. 10 and, as he said in the papers this morning, he doesn't care what [voters] say. He thinks that the Conservatives, it's their turn. I've a message for you, David Cameron. In our country you don't inherit power, you earn it."
Negotiate A Deal
A hung parliament would present unpalatable alternatives for the two established parties.
Given that neither Labour nor the Conservatives would likely cooperate with one another in sharing power, they must either bargain with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition or try to govern as a minority government with the informal support of Clegg's party.
Clegg has already said the Liberal Democrats would be willing to negotiate a deal with the party winning the largest popular vote and the most seats. But he has also suggested that he would not be willing to enter a coalition or support a pact with Labour if Brown remains its leader.
Brown has already said he will stay at the helm of Labour even if he loses the election. But he would come under massive pressure from many in the parliamentary branch of the party who want him out as an electoral liability.
In addition, Clegg would be in a good position to demand that the big parties agree to change the electoral system, scrapping "first past the post" in favor of proportional representation. That's a priority for the Liberal Democrats.
And although it would make for a more complicated electoral scene in Britain, Clegg and company say it would be a step forward into modern democratic practice.