Cameron eyes power as Britain votes in knife-edge poll

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Britain voted Thursday in the closest general election for decades, with polls suggesting opposition Conservatives would win most seats but not enough to form a government alone.

Conservative leader David Cameron was the first of the three main party leaders to cast his vote after urging party supporters in a late-night rally Wednesday to "give this country the hope, the optimism and the change we need".

The start of polling day was marked by a plane crash which injured a high-profile anti-Europe candidate.

Several eve-of-election polls showed the Conservatives had a clear lead over the Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which has been in power for 13 years, and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats.

But they suggested that under Britain's first-past-the-post system, Cameron's party would fall short of an overall majority in the House of Commons, resulting in a hung parliament for the first time since 1974.

A poll by ICM for the Guardian newspaper predicted Conservative support had increased slightly to around 36 percent, with Labour unchanged on 28 percent, while the Lib Dems had fallen back to 26 percent.

That would roughly equate to 283 seats for the Tories, 253 for Labour and 81 for the Lib Dems.

Such an outcome would spark a scramble for power, with Cameron seeking a partner to govern, or forcing through a minority government, possibly with the support of a handful of lawmakers from Northern Ireland.

More than 44 million voters were called to the polls, with observers predicting turnout could be as high as 70 percent after an unusual campaign transformed by the first televised leaders' debates in a British election.

Polling ends at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) and the first results are expected two hours later.

A smiling Cameron and his wife Samantha voted in the picturesque village of Spelsbury in his Witney constituency in Oxfordshire, north of London.

Earlier, two pranksters climbed on to the roof of the polling station and unfurled a banner drawing attention to Cameron's education at the elite fee-paying Eton College, which has produced 18 British prime ministers.

"Britons know your place. Vote Eton -- vote Tory," read the banner, held by two young men, one dressed in a blazer and a straw boater hat, who were later persuaded to climb down by police and taken away for questioning.

Brown, who has been fighting for his political life in a frantic last week of campaigning, was accompanied by his wife Sarah as he voted in steady drizzle in Fife in Scotland.

Clegg, whose party's surprisingly strong showing has made the election so close, cast his ballot in Sheffield in northern England.

Nigel Farage, a high-profile candidate for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), suffered minor head injuries after the light aircraft he was travelling in crashed at an airfield in Northamptonshire.

Unconfirmed reports said a campaign banner being towed by the plane may have become tangled in the aircraft.

Farage, an outspoken member of the European Parliament, is challenging the House of Commons speaker John Bercow in the Buckingham constituency.

The main party leaders campaigned late Wednesday to win over undecided voters in the marginal seats which are likely to decide the outcome of the election.

Cameron rounded off a gruelling 36-hour tour in Bristol, southwest England, by telling a cheering crowd they had a chance to sweep away Labour after 13 years in power.

"Together we can build a better, stronger country," he said.

Brown ended his campaigning in his native Scotland and issued a last-ditch plea to wavering voters to back Labour as the best party to safeguard the country's fragile recovery from a deep recession.

"At this moment of risk to our economy, at this moment of decision for our country, I ask you to come home to Labour," he urged a crowd in Dumfries.

Clegg, who has been cast as a potential kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament, pleaded with voters to back him and seize a "once in a generation opportunity to do things differently".

The Lib Dems have transformed the election into a three-horse race after his assured performance in the TV debates introduced him to a wider public.

For a while, a surge of support propelled the party out of their traditional third position into second position ahead of Labour in many polls, but they appear to have faded towards the end of the race.

© 2010 AFP

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