London: Britons flocked to the polling stations in the general election Thursday that could end 13 years of Labour rule and thrust the small Liberal Democratic Party into a decisive role as kingmaker.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that the election could result in a hung parliament, a situation in which none of the two major parties gains an overall majority, requiring the support of the Liberals.
If that was to happen, the Liberals could participate in government for the first time in over 70 years. The last election which resulted in a hung parliament took place in 1974, but never lead to any government posts for the Liberals.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose political survival is seen as being at stake in this election, cast his vote in his constituency in his native Scotland, flanked by his wife, Sarah.
"Good to see you all," he told election workers, managing a smile despite persistent drizzle and grey skies.
Brown has made securing the fragile economic recovery the main plank of his bid for a fourth consecutive Labour term. But critics are accusing him of being responsible for Britain`s massive budget deficit of 163 billion pounds ($242 billion).
In a stark reminder of the problems facing a new government, British papers printed a warning from the European Commission that Britain`s deficit, expected to reach 12 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011, could come to exceed that of Greece.
Markets have shown signs of nervousness ahead of the elections, amid predictions of an inconclusive outcome that could lead to weeks of horse-trading over the formation of a new government.
Earlier this week, Brown`s Labour Party slipped to third position, prompting comment about a feared "meltdown" of the party which has ruled Britain since 1997.
A string of opinion polls for national newspapers were unanimous Thursday in placing the opposition Conservatives, led by David Cameron, in the lead by a comfortable margin.
But they were also united in suggesting that Cameron will not achieve the overall majority he needs to become prime minister at the head of a majority conservative administration, requiring him to call on the support of the Liberal Democrats.
The figures show that the Tories could win between 35 and 37 percent of the popular share of the vote, with the ruling Labour Party between 27 and 29 percent and between 26 and 28 percent for the Liberal Democrats.
However, under the vagaries of Britain`s first-past-the-post electoral system, opinion poll popularity ratings say little about the actual number of seats won in the 649 constituencies across the country.
Nick Clegg, the 43-year-old Liberal leader was widely seen as the "star" of the election campaign following his refreshing and convincing performance during televised leaders` debates - a novelty in Britain.
An opinion poll published Thursday showed that almost a fifth of voters said they switched their party allegiance as a result of the three debates.
"This election is extremely important for Britain, a lot of people want to change the two-party system," said Michael Clifford, a voter in London.
"It`s an historic election, we need electoral reform, the system has to be changed," said 25-year-old Mariam Kemple.
One polling station worker in Vauxhall, south London, said people had been queuing to vote before opening time. "They were here before 7 am, I`ve never seen that before," said John Medway.
Cameron, accompanied by his pregnant wife, Samantha, voted in Oxfordshire while Clegg attended a polling station in his constituency in Sheffield, northern Britain.
His wife, Spanish lawyer Miriam Gonzales Durantez, who was with him, could not vote as she does not have British citizenship.
Polling day was overshadowed by the crash of a light aircraft carrying Nigel Farage, a candidate for the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
The 46-year-old former leader of UKIP, who is also a Member of the European Parliament, escaped the crash of the two-seater aircraft with light head injuries, a party spokesman said.
The accident was believed to have been caused by an election banner the plane was towing, urging a UKIP vote, becoming entangled with the aircraft.
Of the 45 million Britons entitled to vote, about a third were said to be still undecided, surveys showed earlier this week. The number of constituencies fell by one from 650 after the death of a candidate, it was announced Thursday.
After a lively four-week campaign, turnout is expected to be up, possibly at around 70 percent, a figure not seen since the landmark 1997 election won by former prime minister Tony Blair.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and are to close at 10 p.m. Official results are not expected until the early hours of Friday.