Sydney: Voting ended on Saturday in Australia`s tightest national election in decades, which could see conservative Tony Abbott end Prime Minister Julia Gillard`s short tenure in a stunning upset.
The country`s first woman leader, who seized power eight weeks ago by ousting predecessor Kevin Rudd in a Labor Party coup, was neck-and-neck in opinion polls with Abbott, who has run a trouble-free campaign.
"This is a big day for our country," Liberal/National coalition leader Abbott said as he cast his vote after manning a beachside barbecue in Sydney. "It`s a day when we can vote out a bad government."
Around 14 million electors took part in a mandatory vote across the vast nation, with experts saying the outcome was too close to call.
"This is a tough, tight, close contest, but I`m exercising my own vote," Gillard said earlier as she cast her ballot in Melbourne.
As polls closed at 6:00 pm (0800 GMT) in the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales, where the election is likely to be won or lost in a swathe of marginal seats, early exit polls gave the government a slim victory.
Two separate television exit polls conducted before polling closed predicted Gillard`s party would win by 51 or 52 percent of the vote to the coalition`s 48 or 49, but indicated dangerous swings against Labor in key marginal seats.
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke urged caution over the early polls, saying the tightest election since 1961 could go either way or even end in a deadlock.
"It is a fact that we could have a narrow Labor victory, a narrow coalition victory or a hung parliament," he told Sky News.
Gillard`s centre-left Labor Party ran a campaign riddled with problems and struggled to quell voter anger over June`s shock ousting of elected prime minister Rudd, lifting Abbott`s hopes of a surprise victory.
"When everyone asked I said it would be a cliffhanger... and so it`s proving today," Gillard said.
Gillard, 48, a red-headed former lawyer who was born in Wales, has pledged better education and healthcare and played up Labor`s role in helping Australia shrug off the financial crisis, as well as a planned national broadband scheme.
Abbott, a 52-year-old religious conservative who has doubts about mankind`s role in climate change, has targeted fears over illegal immigration and questioned Labor`s spending record, as well as its knifing of Rudd.
The right-leaning coalition needs a uniform swing of 2.3 percent to return to power less than three years after Rudd ousted 11.5-year prime minister John Howard, pledging action on climate change and impoverished Aborigines.
Victory for Abbott would make Labor the first one-term government since 1932, when the party`s James Scullin lost power during turmoil caused by the Great Depression.
Such a defeat would be an ironic end to a government that won international praise for its handling of the global financial crisis, from which Australia emerged stronger than any other Western economy.
Both sides are targeting marginal seats in resource-rich Queensland -- Rudd`s home state -- and western Sydney, where rapid population growth has put pressure on services and raised concerns about immigration.
Newspapers are split between Gillard and Abbott, but commentators agreed Labor had bungled by replacing Rudd just ahead of polls and underestimating the opposition leader, who has tempered his image as a colourful maverick.
But Labor`s tenure could be saved by Australia`s complex proportional representation electoral system that allows voters to pick their party and also list their second and subsequent choices in order of preference.
If voters disillusioned with Labor trump for the Greens, as many analysts expect, but preference Labor, those votes may be redistributed to the ruling party under a deal between the parties, possibly nudging it over the line.
Most polls closed at 6:00 pm (0800 GMT) Sydney time with the remainder two hours later due to time differences. The elections will decide the make-up of the 150-seat lower house and half the 76-seat Senate.
But analysts raised the prospect of no result being announced on Saturday, saying the contest was so close that postal votes may have to be counted.