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Australia poll 'too close to call'

It could take more than a week to learn who will govern Australia after a cliffhanger election - the closest in nearly 50 years - and the winner may have to woo the support of a handful of independent politicians in order to assume power.

Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister who seized power in an internal Labour Party coup only two months ago, said she will remain the nation's caretaker leader during the "anxious days ahead" as vote counting continues. Liberal leader Tony Abbott said he would immediately begin negotiations with independents to form a government.

The Australian Electoral Commission website said that centre-left Labour and the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition each had 71 seats, meaning neither could achieve the 76-seat majority.

"Obviously this is too close to call," Ms Gillard, who was born in Wales, told party faithful who gathered in her home town of Melbourne in the hope of hearing a victory speech. "We will continue to fight to form government in this country."

"We stand ready to govern and we stand ready to offer the Australian people stable, predictable and competent government," Mr Abbott told supporters at Liberal campaign headquarters in Sydney.

Pundits said Australia's major foreign policy positions, including its deployment of 1,550 troops to Afghanistan, would be unaffected by whichever party wins because both hold similar views. Domestic issues vary across the large and diverse country, including hot topics such as asylum seekers, healthcare and climate change.

An Australian government has not relied on the support of independent politicians to rule since 1942 but that may change after the extremely tight vote. The ranks of the independents in the 150-seat lower house rose from two at the last election to three, possibly four, this time around.

Two independents, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, said they would side with whichever party could provide the most stable government. A third independent, Bob Katter, said he would lend support to the side that pledges the best deal for his constituents. All three are former members of conservative parties.

The election results were expected to be the closest since 1961, when a Liberal government retained power with a single seat. Analyst Norman Abjorensen, an Australian National University political scientist, said the most likely outcome would be an unstable minority government led by Mr Abbott and supported by independents. Mr Abjorensen and other analysts predicted the final count would give Mr Abbott's coalition 73 seats - one more than Labour.

Meanwhile, the left-wing Greens attracted a record number of voters, delivering it a rare seat in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber where parties form the government. The Greens were also likely to increase Senate representation in the 76-seat upper chamber from five to nine senators, assuring the party a say on contentious legislation.

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