Australians went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new government, and as Monday morning dawns, they still have no idea who won. Instead, the two major parties fought to a tie, with both falling just shy of a 76-seat parliamentary majority.
At last count, 73 parliamentary seats have gone to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her leftist Labor Party, while 73 have been won by Tony Abbott and his conservative Liberal-National Coalition. However, postal votes have yet to be fully counted and several seats are close enough that they could yet flip.
At the moment, the Liberal-National Coalition appears to have won the national popular vote, but the independents could make life very interesting. Parliament's three independents have, in some sense, just become the most powerful men in Australia, and the nation is on pins and needles as they decide which side to support. All three sitting independents (Bob Katter, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott) are former members of the agrarian National Party, the junior partner in the Liberal-National Coalition, and represent conservative rural electorates. However, all three left the Nationals disillusioned and have poisonous personal relationships with the current National leadership. Hence, they might be tempted to go with Gillard, who wants to seduce them with pork projects - including plans to build a national broadband Internet network (telecommunications is a big issue in sparsely populated rural Australia, where coverage is hard to come by) .
To make matters even worse, the Green Party also managed to win it's first ever seat in the lower House, potentially giving the far-left environmentalists a role in breaking the tie - though they look pretty certain to back Labor. At this hour, one Australian publication features unconfirmed reports that two of the three independents (plus the Green) have sided with Gillard - and that the popular vote has shifted in Labor's favor after election night reports put the Coalition ahead by a few tenths of one percent. However, another newspaper is running a feature article declaring that the independents would be committing political suicide by voting with Labor - as they hold solidly conservative seats where voters firmly prefer Abbott over Gillard.
If you have a headache after reading that analysis - you're probably in the same boat as 22 million confused Aussies. The only good news is that it seems the Coalition has some moral advantage in negotiations. Labor was firmly rebuked by the electorate, and Julia Gillard's plea to stay in power has generated comparisons to Gordon Brown. There also seems to be a lot of infighting in the Labor Party as a result of the loss of majority - whereas Abbott cemented his leadership of the Coalition with a totally unexpected surge. So, as the independents have said stability is a priority, Labor is less likely to hold itself together. Still, everything remains up in the air, and just a small shift could change everything.
Stay tuned, mates: this thing is only going to get weirder.