LONDON — Britain faces the prospect of days of political turmoil at a time of major economic challenges after the first exit polls from Thursday's U.K. election suggested that no party will emerge with overall control of parliament.
A poll sponsored by the BBC and other broadcasters suggested that the opposition Conservative Party would win 307 seats - falling short by 19 seats in its bid to win an outright majority. While exit polls have been fairly accurate in the last three U.K. elections, the 1992 exit poll predicted a hung parliament but the final results delivered a clear 21-seat majority for the Labor Party.
The exit poll indicated that the governing Labor Party will finish second, winning 255 seats, but had avoided the electoral oblivion many had predicted.
While the poll claimed that the centrist Liberal Democrats would lose seats rather than make their much anticipated breakthrough - a finding that left many experts casting doubt on the poll's reliability - the party could find itself in an unprecedented and hugely influential position. The Tory leader David Cameron will probably need to woo the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) to join a coalition government and make him the next prime minister.
Without a major swing in the actual results, days of political horse-trading of the sort not seen in Britain since the 1970s appear to be on the cards. Small parties such as Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists - which won nine seats - could also emerge as powerbrokers.
"We will not be running to David Cameron, he will be coming to us," said one senior DUP MP, Arlene Foster, hinting Thursday that the Conservative Party leader will be seeking to win the support of the Northern Irish party.
Officially, in the event of a hung parliament Gordon Brown will be able to remain as prime minister until at least May 25, when his government could lose a vote of confidence in parliament as it meets to consider a new legislative program.
He would be able to use the coming days to try to strike a deal with the Liberal Democrats and form a stable government.
However, in reality Mr. Brown would come under tremendous pressure from the Conservatives, who would loudly proclaim they had won the backing of the British people and should be permitted to form a minority administration.
The reaction of the financial markets during this time would be crucial in terms of forcing Brown's hand.
In the 2005 election, the same exit poll correctly predicted the relatively comfortable 66-seat parliamentary majority won by Labor.
However, the knife edge nature of polls leading up to election day has led some observers to cast doubt on today's exit poll, particularly on its prediction that the Liberal Democrats are set to lose rather than gain seats.
Counting will continue through the night around the country.
A flood of results is expected to come in between 1 and 3 o'clock in the morning. If the overall result is tight however, it may not be clear who has won until later on Friday, when daytime counting has concluded in a number of areas.
Conversations with voters close to a polling station Thursday evening in the north London district of Shoreditch, where Labor currently holds the parliamentary seat, gave little clue about who would emerge the victor in what has been one of the closest election in decades.
"I went for David Cameron (the leader of the Conservative Party). We have had Labor for 13 years and so on that basis alone I think it's time for a change," said Pasha Amin Mohammed, the owner of a pizzeria around the corner from the station. "Business has been very slow for me, especially in the last six months or so, and I think that the Conservatives are the right people to get the economy back on track again. But we will all have to make sacrifices."
On her way back from voting, life-long Labor supporter Faye Read said she had decided to stay true to the party. "I just don't trust the Conservatives. I have grown up with Labor," she said. "I was tempted to vote Liberal Democrat after watching Nick Clegg in the TV debates but I just don't think that they are strong enough at the moment as a party to lead the country"
"The reasons I stayed with Labor had to do with things that are important to me as a mother, like tax credits and support for families. I just don't think that the Conservatives care enough about people like us."
The Liberal Democrats had found one convert in Julie Weldon however, a young teacher who voted for Labor in 2005 but had been convinced this time to back the centrist party.
"I wouldn't say it's to do with this 'Cleggmania' (the term coined for a surge in support for the party's leader) but I've definitely felt like there was a chance this time to shake up the old status quo a bit," she said. "We need to try something a bit different, and I think a lot of people from my generation feel that way now, whether it's the Lib Dems or the Greens."