SYDNEY/MELBOURNE -- Australians may not know for some days the results of their July 2 national election, following one of the tightest polls in the country's history. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said hours after polls closed on Saturday night that vote counting would not resume until early in the week but expressed confidence that he would be returned as leader after a closely fought campaign that saw a swing away from his Liberal Party-led coalition toward the opposition Labor Party. But analysts warned of the prospect of a hung parliament, in which no single party or alliance would hold an absolute majority.
It was unclear by the time vote-counting was halted early on Sunday morning whether the ruling Liberal-National coalition could win the minimum 76 lower house seats it requires to form a ruling majority. Even so, Turnbull told a gathering of his party faithful in Sydney that he had "every confidence that we will be able to form a coalition majority government," and said that despite gains for the opposition Labor Party, the opposition "has no capacity in the parliament" to lead the next administration.
Turnbull's speech came soon after rival Bill Shorten, the Labor leader, told his party in Melbourne that final results may not be known "for some days to come." Even if Labor could not regain control of government, which it last held in 2013 before being trounced by the Liberal-National party coalition "there is one thing for sure: the Labor Party is back," he added.
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, 30% of the vote was yet to be counted by the time the tally closed at 2 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and as things stood, Labor and the Liberal-National coalition were running almost level.
The delayed result announcement is due to what appeared to be an extraordinarily close poll which could see minor parties and independent politicians hold the balance of power. Gains for Labor and smaller parties mean that if Turnbull is to extend his nine months in office, it would most likely be with a substantially reduced majority, from the 90 seats in Australia's parliament currently held by his coalition.
Turnbull spoke at the Liberal Party gathering in Sydney in the early hours of July 3, with party members forced to wait more than five hours after the event began for the prime minister to arrive.
More than an hour before Turnbull's arrival, former Prime Minister John Howard -- a Liberal Party titan who led the country for more than 11 years -- told the media he was disappointed at seat losses in the election, but added it was "for the prime minister to speak on behalf of the coalition" regarding the overall election outcome.
There was speculation that Turnbull might not front up at the reception, given early indications that his coalition had lost support compared with its 2013 result. Nonetheless, party supporters put on a brave face. "The mood's not somber, not at all," said one of the gathered crowd, as Turnbull took to the stage amid raucous applause. Jeers erupted when the prime minister accused the opposition Labor Party of lying during its campaign, with the crowd of several hundred people in the hall chanting "shame, shame."
In a protracted, 55-day campaign, the longest in over four decades, the lead in opinion polls swung between the Liberal-led coalition and Labor, with a dead heat emerging in the final two days before the vote.
During the campaign, parties tussled over issues such as taxation, health care, foreign investment and same-sex marriage, and their leaders traded daily barbs over the airwaves -- each lambasting the other side's fitness to govern. However, the combative tenor of the debate clearly left some voters feeling frustrated, and seeking alternatives outside the two main parties of Labor and the Liberals.
"It happens everywhere, but there's a real sense that things get exaggerated in the media here...," said one voter, Grant Gilles.
Turnbull had hoped that his government would be returned with a majority, using the final days of the campaign to warn against what he described as "a protest vote" for independents and small parties.
But it appeared that some voters did not heed the prime minister's entreaties, opting for some of Australia's smaller parties and delivering something of a snub to the Liberal and Labor establishments.
"I think it will be hung parliament and that will give more power to the independents," said Mark Stanborough, a construction worker from Melbourne.
Polling stations across the country had opened early in the day. The states of Queensland and New South Wales -- location of Australia's biggest city, Sydney -- often determine where the election is won and lost. It was for this reason that Labor leader Shorten spent the morning touring marginal seats in Sydney before flying to Melbourne to cast his vote in his solidly Labor seat.
Turnbull meanwhile, followed by a crowd of journalists in Sydney, continued pushing the need for stable, "majority government" -- the coalition's key refrain throughout the campaign -- before he unexpectedly ditched the media later to embark on an unannounced tour of other electorates.
This was the first national election contested since the Senate voting system was overhauled earlier this year -- and reports across the country of long queues at polling stations suggested officials had a big task in explaining to voters how to fill out ballot papers.
Some minor disputes were reported at polling stations, including over campaign signage in seats in progressive inner Melbourne. But as usual in Australia, voting was a quiet, easygoing affair. Many voters, in fact, were as interested as anything else in whether or not polling booths were selling barbecued sausages -- a tradition on election day. The hashtag "#democracysausage" trended on social media for most of the day.
Social media and commentary suggested that many Australians became disengaged with politics during the longest election campaign since 1969 -- and it showed in the mood of some voters waiting in line. Whether they are engaged in politics or not, Australians are required to vote and face fines if they fail to cast a ballot. Those who cannot make it to a polling station on election day can vote early. This year, an unprecedented 4 million chose to vote ahead of the election, either at pre-polling stations or by post.