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Polls suggest Britain is heading for its closest general election in nearly a quarter of a century — with no clear winner in sight for a country facing a huge financial deficit, constitutional crisis and heated debate over immigration.
Domestic issues dominate the campaign, but Thursday's poll does have implications for Britain's special relationship with the U.S. — including whether it renews its Trident nuclear submarine defense system, how much it contributes to military cooperation with Washington under the NATO banner and whether it remains a member of the European Union.
How does the election work?
Britain’s parliament has 650 members, each of whom runs to represent a local constituency in a winner-takes-all system. Even the prime minister, David Cameron, needs to win re-election in his local district.
Any party that wins an outright majority of 326 or more seats can form a government. That means the number of members of parliament is more important than the total number of votes. Without an outright majority, the largest single party will need to form a coalition with one of the smaller groups. This happened in 2010 and looks almost certain to happen again on Thursday.
Who are the key players?
Cameron's Conservative Party entered a coalition deal with the center-left Liberal Democrats in 2010. He hopes to win an outright victory this time around, but polls suggest he will fall short and will again need to enter talks with another party. An ex-public relations executive, Cameron is hampered by the perception that he is out of touch with ordinary voters — an image not helped by his wealthy background, royal connections and elite private school education. But Cameron did get a boost during a visit to Washington in January when President Barack Obama, a popular figure in the U.K., praised the British leader's economic policies and called him a "great friend."
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, served as deputy prime minister in the last government. His party was the third-largest in 2010 but the Conservative-led coalition strained relations with the party's left-leaning traditional support base. This election, the Liberal Democrats are predicted to lose dozens of seats.
The main opposition leader, Ed Miliband of the leftist Labour Party, also hails from a comfortable middle class background. But as the son of a Marxist sociologist who fled Belgium in 1940 to escape Nazi persecution, he hasn't been cast in the same privileged image as Cameron. His awkardness, however, has been a weakness — epitomized by an unflattering press photo in which he struggled to eat a bacon sandwich. Miliband also has struggled to shrug off allegations that he committed symbolic fratricide by defeating older brother David for leadership of the party in 2010.
Miliband's willingness to tackle bankers’ bonuses and energy company profiteering has earned him the nickname “Red Ed” in the right-wing press. But while his policies might be populist, polls suggest he will need the help of other parties to form a government.
Then there's Nigel Farage, who has transformed his right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party — known as UKIP — from a political fringe group into a mainstream force despite its radical agenda of quitting the European Union and placing strict controls on immigration. The former commodities broker has crafted a folksy persona by appearing in photo calls smoking a cigarette and holding a pint of English beer. In doing so, he carries a powerful anti-politics message that appeals to voters fed up with traditional parties. However, his willingness to put immigration at the center of debate may backfire — 44 percent of voters in a recent poll said they believe UKIP is racist.
Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon could emerge as a kingmaker in the case of a hung parliament. Even supporters feared she might struggle to maintain the SNP’s recent wave of support when she took over in November, especially after the party's defeat in the referendum on Scottish independence. They needn't have worried. Sturgeon, who has called for an end to economic austerity, has proven to be formidable when debating with the main party leaders and the SNP now looks set to win an unprecedented number of seats in parliament.
What happens if nobody wins?
Polls suggest that neither Cameron nor Miliband are likely to secure an overall majority, with the country apparently divided between the Conservatives' plan to eliminate the national deficit and Labour's promise to balance austerity with measures to freeze energy bills and raise wages for the country's poorest.
Under Britain’s parliamentary system of government, the leader of the party with the largest number of members in a so-called hung parliament is invited by the monarch to form a coalition government. In previous years, failure to secure a workable government triggered a second election. However, Cameron introduced fixed five-year terms meaning Britain's chosen lawmakers must figure out a deal to choose a government that will serve until 2020.
What are the main domestic issues?
A recent poll shows that managing Britain’s state-run healthcare system, controlling immigration and boosting the fragile economic recovery should be the most important priorities for the next government. Brits trust Labour the most to manage the health service but prefer the Conservatives to reduce the budget deficit, the poll found.
... And overseas?
The main U.K.-wide parties are centrist on foreign and defense issues, with little to separate them.
Cameron’s Conservatives promise no further cuts to the pared-back army, and to introduce a second aircraft carrier for the Navy. However, the party has not guaranteed that Britain will continue to meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense. The party has also pledged four new submarines for Britain’s Trident nuclear defense system, which uses U.S.-designed warheads and is due for renewal.
Labour has pledged to renew Trident but possibly with a reduced number of submarines. It does not rule out other military cuts. The Liberal Democrats want Britain to "step down the nuclear ladder" by cutting the number of submarines and only putting nuclear missiles out to sea in response to a crisis rather than maintaining a continuous deterrent.
Significantly, the Scottish National Party — predicted to win the third-largest number of House of Commons seats — is implacably opposed to nuclear weapons. That means the nuclear defense system of Washington’s most senior transatlantic ally could become a post-election bargaining tool if, as polls predict, no party achieves an outright majority.
Britain’s role in the E.U. is also under scrutiny. Right-wing UKIP, which says Britain could save $15 billion a year by withdrawing from the political and economic union, is likely to win a significant percentage of votes but only a small handful of parliamentary seats. In response to UKIP’s rising popularity, the Conservatives have promised a referendum on Britain’s E.U. membership by 2017.
Does the Queen vote?
Queen Elizabeth does not vote because she is part of the legislature being elected. “As Head of State, The Queen must remain politically neutral, since her Government will be formed from whichever party can command a majority in the House of Commons,” the monarchy site explains. She is not barred from voting - indeed, lesser royals can even stand for election - but she does not do so in order to maintain neutrality.
Alexander Smith contributed to this report.