Polling stations opened across eastern Australia on Saturday as voters decide whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government will defy odds and rule for a fourth three-year term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party is a favourite to win its first election since 2007.
But Morrison defied the opinion polls in 2019 by leading his coalition to a narrow victory.
His coalition holds the narrowest of majorities, 76 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives where parties need a majority to form government.
Both leaders woke on Saturday in Melbourne where they will continue campaigning before voting in their hometown of Sydney.
The first polling stations opened on the east coast at 8 a.m. local time (22:00 GMT). The west coast is two hours behind. The stations close 10 hours later.
Due to the pandemic, more than 48% of Australia’s 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes, which will likely slow the count.
Voting is compulsory for adult citizens and 92% of registered voters cast ballots at the last election.
Early polling for reasons of travel or work began two weeks ago and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue collecting postal votes for another two weeks.
The government changed regulations on Friday to enable people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote over the phone.
Albanese said he had thought Morrison would have called the election last weekend because Australia’s prime minister is expected at a Tokyo summit on Tuesday with President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“If we get a clear outcome today then whoever is prime minister will be on a plane to Tokyo on Monday, which isn’t ideal, I’ve got to say, immediately after a campaign,” Albanese told Nine Network television.
Analysts say Morrison left the election until the last date available to him to give him more time to reduce Labor’s lead in opinion polls.
Labor is promising more spending on child and aged care. The coalition is promising better economic management as Australia’s deficit soars due to the pandemic.
The closely-watched Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead with 53% of voter support.
The poll surveyed 2,188 voters across Australia from May 13 to 19. It has a 2.9% margin of error.
The split of votes between the government and Labor in 2019 was 51.5% to 48.5% – the mirror opposite of the result that Australia’s five most prominent polls including Newspoll predicted.
As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison’s conservative Liberal Party is fighting off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to key government lawmakers’ re-election in party strongholds.
The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue colour and want stronger government action on reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
The government aims to reduce Australia’s emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 43% reduction.
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.