Australia's prime minister promised to stabilize a government long steeped in chaos. Instead, his gamble to call an early election highlighted the instability, with the result too close to call and the nation facing the grim prospect of a hung parliament.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he remained "quietly confident" his conservative Liberal Party-led coalition would emerge victorious. But that confidence conflicts with early results showing Turnbull's party losing a swathe of seats in the House of Representatives — which determines who governs the country.
"Australians seek greater certainty, greater clarity, stability in their government," Turnbull told reporters on Sunday. "While the count will take a number of days, probably until the end of next week, I can promise all Australians that we will dedicate our efforts to ensuring that the state of the new parliament is resolved without division or rancor."
Delivering a unified government may be tough. With around 30 percent of ballots cast Saturday left to be counted, neither the coalition nor the opposition center-left Labor Party had gained the required 76 seats in the 150-seat House to form a government. Turnbull was pinning his hopes on mail-in and early ballots that traditionally favor the conservatives.
The likeliest scenarios point to a slim coalition victory or a dreaded hung parliament, which could prompt yet another election. Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten both have contacted the five independent lawmakers who could be called on to support a minority government. If no alliance can be forged, the government could end up calling another election, though Turnbull did not directly say if he considered that an option.
"We are committed to ensuring that the parliament, as elected, will work effectively and constructively for the Australian people," Turnbull said.
Shorten, who surprised most analysts by rallying a higher than expected number of voters to his Labor Party, accused Turnbull of failing to deliver on his promise of a united government.
"It is pretty ironic — last week, Mr. Turnbull was promising rock-solid guarantees of stability," Shorten said.
The uncertainty is troublesome, with Turnbull acknowledging he was worried that any perception of instability while the vote was sorted out could harm Australia's triple-A credit rating.
Business leaders described the unresolved election as the worst possible outcome and urged the parties and independents to act quickly to form a government.
Economist Stephen Koukoulas, managing director of Market Economics, said markets would not like the uncertainty when they open on Monday after the global instability that followed Britain's decision to leave the European Union.
Shorten did not speculate on a Labor victory, but celebrated the strong swing to his party just three years after it was convincingly dumped from power in the last election.
"What I'm very sure of is that whilst we don't know who the winner was, there's clearly one loser: Malcolm Turnbull's agenda for Australia and his efforts to cut Medicare," Shorten said, referring to Australia's universal health care system.
The elections continue an extraordinarily volatile period in the nation's politics, where internal party squabbling and fears over sagging poll ratings have prompted five changes of prime minister in as many years.
That volatility is the new norm in modern politics, with many voters unwilling to commit to either major party, said Rodney Smith, professor of Australian politics at the University of Sydney. Behind that lack of commitment is the tendency of both the public and their politicians to focus more sharply on short-term rather long-term results.
"The speed of politics has definitely increased," Smith said. "We talk about the 24-hour news cycle and so on, and I think that's starting to make it difficult for parties in government to say, 'Well, you're not going to see any benefits from this policy for the next few years but it'll be good in the long term.'"
The new makeup of the Senate could result in further legislative limbo. Monash University political analyst Nick Economou said the new Senate could prove more resistant to free trade deals and globalization initiatives after two minor protectionist parties were among the election winners.
The Australian Electoral Commission said the Nick Xenophon Team party, which advocates protection of manufacturing jobs, and the anti-immigration Pauline Hanson's One Nation party likely won several seats.
Xenophon had been his party's lone senator for South Australia state. The party will now likely have three senators and a lawmaker in the House of Representatives. Hanson's party has had no representative in Parliament since she was voted out in 1998. She and probably a second candidate from her party have won Senate seats for Queensland state.
Going into the election, the government had 33 senators, Labor 25 and the minor Greens party 10. There were eight crossbenchers.
If Labor and the Greens rejected legislation, the government needed the support of at least six of the crossbenchers to pass it.
Xenophon expects that if the government retains power, it would need the support of eight or nine crossbenchers to pass legislation against the will of Labor and the Greens.
The final makeup of the Senate won't be known for weeks.
Koukoulas, the economist, said the prospect of a more fractious Senate would likely hurt market confidence.
"This hotchpotch is bad for policy reform and that's a problem," Koukoulas said.