LONDON // Britons voted on Thursday in a knife-edge general election that could put their country’s membership of the European Union in question and raise the likelihood of independence for Scotland.
Voters casting their ballots face a choice between a government led by prime minister David Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives or by Ed Miliband’s centre-left Labour in the closest vote in decades.
Capturing the tense mood, The Times carried a front page with the words "Judgment Day" emblazoned over a picture of the sun setting behind Big Ben, calling it the "most important election for a generation".
“I wouldn’t say it’s exciting – its more unnerving,” said Annette, a 59-year-old community worker in south London, who declined to give her last name.
“In the past there’s been a clear demarcation, where with each party you knew exactly where you stood. Whereas now, it’s a shade of grey rather than red or blue or green.”
While the leaders of both main parties insist they can win a clear majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, they will almost certainly have to work with smaller parties to form a government.
The last three polls released on Wednesday showed a dead heat between the two main parties – Conservatives and Labour.
More than 45 million Britons are eligible to vote at polling stations located everywhere from shipping containers to churches and pubs on the mainland and remote islands.
Exit polls will be released when polls close at 1am UAE time on Friday, although the final tally of seats will not become clear until Friday afternoon.
Mr Cameron voted in his Witney constituency, but there were chaotic scenes as he emerged from the polling station when he was confronted by a person dressed as Elmo from children’s show Sesame Street as part of a protest by fathers’ rights campaigners.
As she left a polling station in the city of Glasgow after casting her vote, Scottish National Party chief Nicola Sturgeon said: “My message is that we’ll stand up for Scotland but we will look to make alliances with people across the UK to make Westminster politics better.”
If neither the Conservatives nor Labour win a clear majority, they will start days and possibly weeks of negotiations with smaller parties to try and build a bloc of around 326 seats.
Latest poll data suggested that the Tories were on course to win most seats by a narrow margin, with between 274 and 289, but could be hampered in forming a government by opposition from Labour and the SNP, which wants Scotland to become independent.
Support for the SNP, which has said it would support Labour, has soared since Scotland rejected independence in a referendum last September, potentially giving Mr Miliband the upper hand in post-election horse-trading.
The centrist Liberal Democrats, junior partners in Mr Cameron’s coalition government, will also have a key role to play in negotiations and are open to working with either of the two main parties.
The UK Independence Party is only expected to win a handful of seats but could influence the result if it takes away Tory voters in marginal seats.
The new government would face its first big test when lawmakers vote on its legislative programme after a traditional speech given by Queen Elizabeth II in parliament on May 27.
The election is closely watched around the world due to the consequences it could have for the standing of Britain, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear-armed Nato state.
“A Little England does not augur well for a US foreign policy which aims specifically to empower like-minded states to share the burden of leadership,” Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution foreign affairs think-tank in the US, wrote this week.
Another potential issue for Britain’s global status is that Mr Cameron has promised a referendum on whether Britain, the world’s fifth biggest economy and Europe’s second largest, should leave the EU by 2017 if the Conservatives win.
“This general election will determine what Britain’s place will be in the world in a way that no other general election has done previously, but the importance of this is chronically under-discussed,” said Jeanne Park, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations.
* Agence France-Presse