Saturday, August 21, 2010

Australians cast ballots in 'cliff-hanger'

Australians cast ballots in 'cliff-hanger'
By the CNN Wire Staff
August 21, 2010 7:27 a.m. EDT
Australians cast their vote for a new government at Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club on August 21, 2010 in Sydney.
Australians cast their vote for a new government at Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club on August 21, 2010 in Sydney.
  • NEW: Polls are closed in Australia's tightly contested election
  • NEW: With more than 63 percent of the vote counted, Labor is leading
  • Incumbent Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces Liberal leader Tony Abbott
  • Voters say the economy is a key issue

Sydney, Australia (CNN) -- Polls closed Saturday in Australia's federal election, a hotly contested race that will decide the next leader of the country.

With more than 63 percent of the votes counted, the Labor Party of Prime Minister Julia Gillard was leading with 51 percent of the vote, while the Liberal-National coalition of Tony Abbott had 49 percent, according to results posted online by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Voting is mandatory for adults in Australia, and more than 14 million were expected to cast ballots. A spokesman for the commission said he could not say when final results would be released.

Ahead of the vote, Gillard had described the election as a "cliff-hanger."

Video: Poll numbers tight in Australia
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Economic issues figured prominently in the campaign. Both candidates tried to convince a skeptical public that they could get the country back in the black within three years.

Australia's economy has been relatively healthy, with the country avoiding the painful recession other developed countries have been fighting to free themselves.

Abbott leads the Liberal Party, which is nevertheless conservative and forms a center-right coalition with The Nationals. A fourth party, The Greens, is much smaller and has strong environmental ethos.

Gillard was born in Wales in 1961 and moved to Australia with her family in 1966. After graduating with an arts and law degree in Melbourne, she worked as a lawyer before being elected to Parliament in the seat of Lalor, Victoria in 1998. She became deputy prime minister and minister for education, employment and workplace relations when Labor was voted into power in November 2007.

Gillard became prime minister on June 24 after Kevin Rudd lost support of the Labor Party.

That move has dogged Gillard ever since, with some calling it a palace coup and referring to her as a backstabber. Liberal campaign ads have talked about Gillard's ruthless streak in giving Rudd "the chop."

Australia has a historically low unemployment rate of 5.1 percent and the country was able to avoid recession during the recent worldwide economic downturn. Both main parties have promised to slash the country's modest deficit -- national debt is only 6 percent of gross domestic product -- and to return the country to surplus in three years.

Gillard said her priorities included keeping the country's economy strong. Abbott said his government would end government waste, repay debts and stop new taxes.

Other contentious issues with voters included the way Australia will deal with asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and people smugglers, and whether it should embrace the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

The two main parties have no massive ideological differences. Instead, many saw the election as a chance for voters to pass judgment on Labor's ouster of Rudd, who once enjoyed some of the highest popularity ratings of any Australian leader.

Rudd's poll numbers took a hit after he placed his proposed carbon emissions trading plan on the back burner and introduced a 40-percent tax on the country's powerful and wealthy mining industry. That prompted many in his party to doubt whether he could lead the party to victory in the election, so Rudd stepped aside.

Gillard said this week she believes Australia should become a republic after Britain's Queen Elizabeth II dies.

Although Australia is a fully independent parliamentary democracy, the British monarch is head of state. Gillard said the country has a "deep affection" for the queen but, that she wants to see Australia make the transition toward a republic.

Abbott said he sees "no reason whatsoever" why the current constitutional arrangement should change.

Like Gillard, Abbott also has ties to Britain, having been born in London in 1957. He studied economics and law at the University of Sydney and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

He worked as a journalist for publications including The Australian newspaper, and was elected to Parliament in the seat of Warringah in 1994. He served in numerous posts during the government of John Howard, between 1996 and 2007, and last December he became leader of the opposition.

CNN's Dan Rivers, Anna Coren and David Challenger contributed to this report.

Unidos Venceremos! United We Will Win!
~Peta-de-Aztlan~ Sacramento, California, Amerika
"An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come."
~ Victor Hugo, 18th Century French Philosopher c/s

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