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Conservative Party Appears Just Short Of Majority In Historic British Election


Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (left), Prime Minister Gordon Brown (center), and leader of the opposition Conservatives David Cameron

British voters appear to have rejected Prime Minister Gordon Brown's leadership and thrown their support behind David Cameron's opposition Conservative Party.

After what's being called the tightest election in British history, exit poll results suggest that the Conservatives will be the country's largest governing party but it has not won enough seats in the 650-member House of Commons to do the job alone.

The result is likely to be the country's first hung parliament in more than 30 years.

Britain's major television networks -- including the BBC and Sky News -- had interpreted exit polls results as suggesting that the Conservative Party would end the night with 307 seats, which would leave them 19 short of an outright majority.

Long queues were reported at polling stations around the country as voter turnout approached record levels. The BBC reported that voters were turned away at some polling stations as closing time neared.

Out After 13 Years

Pre-election surveys had shown the Conservatives with a lead of around seven percentage points on the Labour Party. Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, was neck-and-neck with Labour, which has held power for the last 13 years.

On the eve of polling day -- and in an echo of candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential race -- Cameron said his party stood for "change" and "hope." In a last campaign appearance, he implored voters to, "Vote for change, vote Conservative, vote to give this country the hope, the optimism and the change we need. Together we can build a stronger, better country."

The campaign had been remarkable for a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats under their leader, Nick Clegg, that did not appear to hold up once voters went to the polls.

For many years the Lib Dems have been sidelined to the political margins, in part due to Britain's electoral system, where MPs are elected from single-mandate constituencies and runners-up get nothing.

The winner is the party with the most seats -- not necessarily the highest percentage of votes nationwide.

This seemed to favor Labour and the Conservatives, whose supporters tend to be more concentrated in certain areas, while Lib Dem supporters are more evenly spread throughout the country.

Failed Appeal

Clegg's star rose in this campaign thanks to the equal billing he shared with Cameron and Brown in a series of television debates -- a first for Britain.

Clegg was perceived as giving a strong performance, and his party threatened to draw support away from both Labour and the Conservatives, whom Clegg has portrayed throughout as being tired practitioners of an old style of politics.

In one of his final appeals to voters on May 5, Clegg told voters, "It's time to make a choice. It's a choice between the old politics of the past and the new, different politics of the future."

Clegg's party was hoping to capitalize on voter fatigue after 13 years of Labour rule, latterly under the unpopular Brown, as well as widespread public anger -- directed mainly at the big two parties -- over a lawmakers' expenses scandal.

The tightness of the race means Clegg could have a decisive role as "kingmaker."

If no single party wins enough seats to govern alone, the parties will be forced into coalition-forming negotiations. Alternatively, it could produce a minority government that relies on the support of other parties.

While common in many other European countries, such a scenario would be highly unusual in Britain, where it's caused some anxiety.

Some worry it will make it harder to take the tough decisions needed to get Britain's debt-laden public finances in order.

On one of his last campaign appearances, Brown said only a majority government could deliver what the country needs. "Everyone, come out, come home to Labour and ensure what we need for this country -- a majority Labour government. Thank you."

written by Kathleen Moore in Prague; with agency reports

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