What happens next after Britain's election?
Britain could face days or even weeks of negotiations to form a new government after elections on May 7, with opinion polls suggesting that no one party will win outright.
Here's what will happen after the election if neither of the two main parties, Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives or Ed Miliband's Labour, wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons:
- Negotiations -
The political parties will immediately start talks on who should form the next government.
The Conservatives and Labour will negotiate with smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) about whether they could team up to take power.
The negotiations could last two weeks or even longer, experts say, raising the prospect of instability on the financial markets due to the uncertainty.
Queen Elizabeth II will not take part in the talks but her private secretary will be based at Downing Street and will keep her informed.
Royal sources have reportedly said she will not be used as a "prop" to legitimise either side prematurely.
Cameron remains British prime minister while the negotiations go on. If it becomes clear that the Conservatives will lead the next government, he keeps his job.
If the talks go Labour's way, Cameron is expected to resign and advise the queen to appoint Miliband.
- Possible outcomes -
Nobody knows what the next government will look like.
It will probably be the bloc of parties, led by either the Conservatives or Labour, which can attract the support of the most lawmakers in the House of Commons. It will not necessarily be led by the party with the most seats.
Labour could team up with the pro-independence SNP, which is on course to remain the third-largest party in the Commons.
The Conservatives' most likely option is to pair off with the Liberal Democrats, whom they have been in a coalition government with since 2010.
The SNP have ruled out working with the Conservatives but the Liberal Democrats could also work with Labour.
The key test is that the new government must be able to "command the confidence of the House of Commons".
There are two main types of government that such alliances could lead to.
A coalition government, which Britain has had since 2010, is a formal union between two or more parties and provides a stable platform for power.
A minority government, which Britain has not had since 1997, is a more informal alliance between two or more parties which can be based on vote-by-vote bargaining or a longer-term agreement.
- Queen's Speech -
The first big step for a new government is usually the Queen's Speech on May 27.
This is typically a day of pomp and ceremony when the queen opens the new session of Parliament and gives a speech written by the government outlining its legislative programme.
After the speech, lawmakers debate it for several days.
There is then a vote which is traditionally seen as a vote of confidence in the government, although it may not be treated as such this time if the numbers are too close.
If the new government lost, it and the new prime minister would typically be expected to resign.
However, things may be different this year if no agreement can be reached on a new government.
Experts say in that situation, the queen is unlikely to attend. Cameron could try to hold on until that day to allow a confidence vote in his government.
- Will it last? -
Even if the new government does survive the Queen's Speech, it is not necessarily out of danger.
A minority government with only weak support from smaller parties might struggle to cling to power for long as a confidence vote can be held at any time.
If a government loses a confidence vote, an alternative government must then be formed within 14 days or another election is held.
While the Fixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 makes it harder to call an early election, it is also still possible to trigger a second poll if a two-thirds majority of the Commons votes for it.
Although a second election is possible as early as this year, this may not appeal to many at Westminster because of the campaign costs involved.
© 2015 AFP