AP - Australia's government and opposition were running neck-and-neck in vote counting after elections Saturday that could end with neither side able to form a majority government.
The Australian Electoral Commission said the ruling conservative coalition was leading in 71 seats, the center-left opposition Labor Party in 68 seats, and minor parties or independents in five seats. Counting was less clear in another six seats of the 150 in the House of Representatives where parties that control a majority form government.
The election could results in a hung parliament in which a major party needs to form an alliance with independents or minor parties to form a minority government.
Australia's only minority government since World War II was led by the Labor Party from 2010 to 2013 when the coalition was swept to power with 90 seats.
"There's a good chance we'll still be trying to work out who's won this election tomorrow and maybe even longer than that," Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek told Australian Broadcasting Corp. less than three hours after counting started. "It's a very, very close election."
Treasurer Scott Morrison said he thought his coalition would be able to form a majority government. But Labor's only hope was to form a minority government.
Following years of political turmoil, leaders of the major parties have each promised to bring stability to a government long mired in chaos.
The elections cap an extraordinarily volatile period in the nation's politics. Australian political parties can change their leaders under certain conditions and have done so in recent years with unprecedented frequency. Should Labor win, its leader, Bill Shorten, would become Australia's fifth prime minister in three years.
Several government ministers blamed the strong result for Labor on a dishonest campaign that that the conservatives threatened Australia's universal health care system known as Medicare.
"Even today people were talking about not being able to afford health care because we were going to get rid of Medicare. It was utter rubbish. But what do you do when one party relies on a monstrous lie to get elected," Liberal Party Deputy Leader Julie Bishop told ABC.
Two weeks before the election, Shorten ramped up his campaign on health policy by describing the poll as a referendum on the future of Australia's universal health care system.
A Labor government introduced government-funded Medicare in 1984 to provide free or subsidized health care for all Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Labor accused the government of planning to privatize Medicare — a claim Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed as an audacious scare campaign.
But aside from the privatization debate, Shorten also promised to better fund Medicare than the government.
He promised to increase the government subsidies paid to private doctors to treat patients. The government had frozen the subsidy rate for the next four years, with many patients likely to be charged more for consultations.
Shorten also promised to store incentives paid to private companies to provide free X-ray and pathology services to patients. The government cut those incentives from July 1.
The so-called revolving-door prime ministership, coupled with global instability wrought by Britain's recent vote to leave the European Union, prompted promises by Turnbull that sticking with the status quo was the safer choice.
"In an uncertain world, Labor offers only greater uncertainty," Turnbull warned in one of his final pitches to voters this week. "They have nothing to say about jobs, growth or our economic future."
Labor, meanwhile, has sought throughout the eight-week campaign to cast Turnbull's Liberal Party as deeply divided, with Shorten saying: "You cannot have stability without unity."
Selling stability is a tough job for either party, both of which have been marred by infighting in recent years. Shorten played a key role in ousting two of the Labor Party's own prime ministers in the space of three years, and Turnbull himself ousted Tony Abbott as prime minister in an internal party showdown less than a year ago. Up until 2007, conservative John Howard served as prime minister for nearly 12 years.
Many Aussies who lined up at the polls were weary of the constant change.
Morag McCrone, who voted for Labor at a polling station in Sydney, acknowledged her choice could lead to yet another new prime minister, but couldn't bring herself to vote for Turnbull's party.
"Internationally, it's embarrassing," McCrone said of the endless stream of leadership changes. "It's a bit like ancient Rome at times, really."
Sydney resident Beau Reid, who also voted for Labor, agreed.
"I'm getting a little bit sick of it," Reid said. "Not to say that John Howard was a great prime minister, but it was good to have someone who was at the helm for a period that wasn't two (or) three years."
The government has focused much of its campaign on a promise to generate jobs and economic growth through tax cuts to big businesses. Economic growth is a key issue for many Australians, who have seen thousands of jobs vanish from the country's once-booming resources sector amid China's industrial slowdown.
Labor has said it will keep the higher tax rates and use the revenue to better fund schools and hospitals.
Same-sex marriage has also emerged as a campaign issue. Turnbull, who personally supports gay marriage despite his party's opposition to it, has promised to hold a national poll known as a plebiscite this year that would ask voters whether the nation should allow same-sex marriage. But governments are not bound by the results of plebiscites, and some conservative lawmakers have said they would vote down a gay marriage bill even if most Australians supported marriage equality.
Labor, which dubbed the plebiscite a waste of taxpayers' money, promises that the first legislation the party will introduce to parliament will be a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.
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