Elections May Upset Traditional Politics In Britain

Nick Clegg (from left), Gordon Brown and David Cameron i i

British opposition Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (from left); Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the ruling Labour Party; and opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron shake hands April 22 after participating in the second of three live televised debates. A poll surge by the third-party Liberal Democrats now threatens Britain's traditional two-party system. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
Nick Clegg (from left), Gordon Brown and David Cameron

British opposition Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (from left); Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the ruling Labour Party; and opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron shake hands April 22 after participating in the second of three live televised debates. A poll surge by the third-party Liberal Democrats now threatens Britain's traditional two-party system.

Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

British voters are casting ballots in what political analysts are calling the most exciting U.K. election in 20 years and one that is likely to change the balance of parliamentary power.

Polls show that the Conservative Party is set to gain to a substantial number of seats in Thursday's general election, enough to dislodge the ruling Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

But a strong showing by a third party, the Liberal Democrats, could force the next government into some unaccustomed wheeling and dealing if it wants to get things done, particularly if no single party wins enough seats — 326 — to gain an outright majority in the House of Commons.

Britain's short election season saw the rise of the telegenic leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, who fared well in polls following the country's first American-style televised debates of the leaders of the three parties.

Meanwhile, Brown and his Labour Party have suffered amid a sputtering economy and the unpopular war in Afghanistan. Brown also struggled after a campaign blunder dubbed "Bigot-gate," when he was publicly heard calling a 65-year-old woman at a campaign stop a bigot because of her questions on immigration policy.

Where They Stand

The Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic Party are running a tight race ahead of Thursday's general elections in Britain. Read about their leaders and the party positions.

The Conservatives, also known as the Tories, are led by David Cameron. He is credited with reviving the party's prospects — it has led opinion polls for much of the past year — and putting Downing Street within reach.

The British electoral system is set up in a way that usually ensures that one of the two main parties wins an absolute majority. The winning party's leader then has a free hand to set up the new government.

The leader becomes prime minister and can name his or her Cabinet, write budgets and promote the party's policies unhindered, while the opposition can do little more than criticize.

But if no party wins an absolute majority, the result is what the British call a "hung Parliament." The would-be leaders will have to form coalitions with smaller parties, and that can mean compromising on policies and sharing positions of power in the Cabinet.

The force that's upsetting Britain's familiar pattern is the Liberal Democratic Party. The "Lib Dems" hold very few seats in Parliament, because most members of Parliament are elected from districts that are drawn in ways that favor either Labour or Tory candidates.

The Lib Dems would like to change all that by introducing a system that would give them extra seats to reflect their share of the overall vote.

The leader of the party, Clegg, was seen by many viewers as the winner in the first debate, offering himself as a candidate who could bring fresh ideas and change. Commentators praised him for an intimate style that included addressing his questioners in the audience by their first names.

During the second debate, Clegg came under much tougher attacks from both his opponents — especially on the issue of immigration, which is as controversial in the U.K. as it is in the U.S. Many viewers rated the result as a three-way tie.

The third and final debate focused on Britain's shaky economy, including its high unemployment, taxes and spending cuts. Cameron, the Tory leader, argued for the strongest austerity measures and was generally seen as the winner.

Recent polling shows that the Liberal Democrats could pick up about 20 additional seats, for a total of just over 80. That's not a lot in Britain's 650-member House of Commons, but if the two major parties have a neck-and-neck finish, the Lib Dems could find themselves holding the balance of power.

The price of their cooperation could be a move toward more proportional representation in the country's electoral system.

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