Australian leader claims election win, but questions remain

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal Party has claimed a narrow victor, but it is still unclear whether his party will govern with a clear majority or whether it will have to rely on a coalition with independent and minor party lawmakers.

Paul Miller/Reuters
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during a news conference in Sydney, Australia, July 10, 2016.

Eight days after Australia's general election ended in uncertainty, the prime minister finally claimed victory Sunday for his conservative coalition, bringing an end to the country's political paralysis — at least for the moment.

Though the question of who won the July 2 election was answered, the question of exactly how the conservatives will rule the fractured Parliament was not. With official results still days or even weeks away, it was unclear whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal Party-led coalition had won enough votes to govern in its own right, or whether it would need the support of independent and minor party lawmakers to form a minority government.

Either way, Mr. Turnbull faces a rough road ahead with a divided party, a splintered Senate and a politically weary public that has endured five changes of prime minister in as many years.

Though millions of votes still need to be counted, there was no way for the opposition center-left Labor Party to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, where parties form governments. That prompted opposition leader Bill Shorten to formally concede the race on Sunday, which in turn triggered Turnbull to announce that the coalition had won a second three-year term.

"We have resolved this election and done so peacefully," Turnbull told reporters.

Yet the election was not entirely resolved. Parties are required to hold at least 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives to form a majority government, and the coalition has not yet reached that number. With around a quarter of the votes still left to be counted, the Australian Electoral Commission said the coalition was leading in 74 seats, the center-left Labor Party in 71 seats and minor parties and independents in five. It could take weeks to determine the final tally.

There are two possibilities: Either the coalition will form a majority government by a slim margin, or the country will have a hung Parliament. If that happens, Turnbull's coalition will forge an alliance with independent and minor party lawmakers to form a minority government. Three independent lawmakers have already pledged their support to the coalition if such a situation arises.

Asked whether he thought his party would win a majority, Turnbull replied simply, "We've won the election."

The coalition entered the race with a comfortable majority of 90 seats, and few had predicted it would suffer such steep losses. The result has raised the prospect that Turnbull could face a leadership challenge from colleagues unhappy with the party's weak showing.

Even if Turnbull manages to hang onto his job, he has a slew of problems to contend with. The moderate leader needs to face the more conservative lawmakers in his party who are angry about his performance and upset that he ousted his predecessor, Tony Abbott, in an internal leadership ballot less than a year ago.

He will also need to deal with a fragmented Senate that could make it tough for him to pass laws. Though the final makeup of Parliament's upper house is unlikely to be known for weeks, no party will win a majority of seats. That means even if Turnbull gets contentious legislation passed by the House, he would still have to try and strike deals with the opposition or a disparate group of Senate independents and minor parties to get it signed into law.

The turbulence has already caused other problems. Uncertainty surrounding the election prompted rating agency Standard & Poor's to downgrade Australia's coveted AAA credit rating last week from "stable" to "negative." The agency said Australia needs "more forceful fiscal policy decisions" to rein in debt and believes such tough measures could be postponed by the new Parliament.

The chaos follows one of the closest elections in Australian history, which failed to deliver an immediate victor. In several seats, just a few hundred votes were separating the coalition from Labor.

Despite the tight race, it became clear in recent days that Labor would not be able to win enough seats to form a government, prompting the opposition leader to formally concede on Sunday.

"I hope for our nation's sake the coalition does a good job," Mr. Shorten told reporters in Melbourne. "I hope they run a good government."

Shorten said that his party would work with the coalition to find common ground, saying he understood Australia's need for a functioning Parliament.

He also said it was time Australia considered ditching its pencil-and-paper ballots for a speedier electronic system. That is one area in which he and Turnbull are aligned; the prime minister has long advocated for a move to electronic voting.

"We're a grown-up democracy," Shorten said. "It shouldn't be taking eight days to find out who has won."

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