Australia’s embattled conservative coalition was bracing for defeat as polls closed in a crucial by-election Saturday, with a loss set to snuff out its slim parliamentary majority.
The by-election in the wealthy Sydney seat of Wentworth was triggered after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party coup in August — the sixth change of national in the last decade.
Turnbull’s successor, Scott Morrison, is facing public anger about the leadership merry-go-round and constant infighting in Canberra, and could be made to pay in Wentworth, traditionally a seat held by his Liberal Party.
The Liberal-National coalition has a one-seat parliamentary majority, and a loss in Wentworth would transform it into a minority government, effectively turning Morrison into a lame duck prime minister.
Voting is compulsory in Australia but the buzz around the polling stations was unusual for Wentworth, with dozens of volunteers from different parties inundating voters with leaflets for their candidates.
“I’ve done over 20 elections and this is the first time at eight o’clock (in the morning) we’ve had a queue,” Liberal Party volunteer Kevin Berry told national broadcaster ABC.
“It’s quite extraordinary the level of interest in the election this time around. I think the quality of the candidates is significant and the event itself is quite significant.”
Counting started after polls closed at 0700 GMT, but a tight race could see a result declared only on Sunday or later, an election official said.
– Frustrated voters –
Wentworth resident Roslyn Taylor said she was frustrated with politicians and the chaos that has plagued the main parties in recent years.
“None of them have really got their mind on the job. None of them have got their mind on the people — the true needs of the people in terms of education, in terms of health,” she told AFP outside a polling booth at Bondi Beach.
The sprawling Sydney constituency takes in the famous beach well as the haunts of stars like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.
While the seat was easily held by Turnbull, polls before the by-election were pointing to defeat for the Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma at the expense of high-profile independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.
“I’m hearing from the people in Wentworth that they are ready for change,” she told the ABC Saturday.
However, she added: “I don’t think anyone can afford to be overly confident because we don’t know what the outcome will be.”
A defeat would prove hugely embarrassing to Morrison, who even floated the idea of moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — upending decades of Australian foreign policy — in a bid to woo Wentworth’s Jewish voters.
Despite the efforts of part heavyweights to ramp-up support for Sharma before polls closed, Morrison appeared resigned to a defeat.
“The events of a couple of months ago would have caused a great deal of anger and outrage here in Wentworth,” Morrison told reporters on Friday of Turnbull’s removal.
“I know, I was in the parliament.”