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UK general election: Britons poised to make history

An embattled yet experienced incumbent faces an untested but charismatic Conservative. Also in the mix is a surprise upstart contender.

By Paisley Dodds and David StringerAssociated Press Writers / May 6, 2010

A voter at the Reigate Social Club polling station in Halewood, near Liverpool, England, as polling stations across the country open Thursday May 6, 2010, for the national General Election which will shape the political future of the country, following a closely fought election campaign.

Peter Byrne/PA/AP

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London

Britain was weighing a beleaguered yet experienced incumbent against an untested but charismatic Conservative rival - along with a surprise upstart contender - in an election Thursday that was so close it could yield an uncertain outcome and prolonged political turmoil.

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Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was trailing in the polls against Conservative David Cameron, with Nick Clegg of the perennial third-place Liberal Democrats gunning for a historic strong showing that could give his party major political clout.

But polls suggested there was a good chance no party would win an absolute majority needed to govern effectively.

The stakes are high: Britain is mired in economic crisis as its financial sector struggles to restore its luster, the nation creaks under mountains of public debt, and Greece's financial crisis threatens to spread across the continent.

A prolonged period of coalition horse trading and rudderless government could spook investors and send the economy into a downward spiral.

Brown doggedly stumped to the bitter end, pounding at the message that he's the safest pair of hands to lead his nation to economic recovery. Cameron finished off his campaign with a 36-hour marathon swing crisscrossing the country, hoping to bring the Conservatives back to power after 13 years in opposition.

The Liberal Democrats, the U.K.'s longtime third party, has found new momentum under the boyish, articulate Clegg - who has charmed voters by coming across as more natural than the aristocratic Cameron and friendlier than the notoriously grumpy Brown.

The 43-year-old political wunderkind seized upon sharp performances in the nation's first-ever televised debates to win attention and has capitalized upon voter mistrust following a lawmaker expense abuse scandal by promising lasting change.

Britain's tabloids started the day with the Daily Mirror running a picture of Cameron along with the words, "Prime Minister? Really?" The Sun, meanwhile, superimposed Cameron's face onto President Barack Obama's multicolored poster, with a headline that read "Our Only Hope."

Polls suggest the Conservatives will win the largest number of seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, but may well fall short of the 326 needed to form a majority government. If that happens - a so-called hung Parliament - Brown, as sitting prime minister, will get the first chance to form a government, even if Labour gets fewer seats than the Conservatives. He would likely try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

Financial markets would likely react badly to the uncertainty of a hung Parliament, but many voters - disillusioned with busines-as-usual politics - would welcome it.

Retiree Sybil Ashton, 81, said she had opted for Labour - but reluctantly, and mostly out of distaste for the legacy of right-wing icon Margaret Thatcher.

"Labour have done awful things, but I don't want a Thatcherite ... government, and I can't vote for the Liberal Democrats - they're weak Tories," she said, referring to the Conservatives by their common party nickname. "I'm just hoping for some sort of Labour-Lib Dem compromise, to water them all down."

Only months ago, most thought the election would be the Conservatives' for the taking - but that was before the perfect political storm started brewing.

An embarrassing expense scandal last year enraged voters after lawmakers were caught being reimbursed for everything from imaginary mortgages to ornamental duck houses at country estates, bringing trust in British politics to a record low.