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Friday, May 7, 2010

Lib Dems take poll hit but step up as kingmakers

LONDON (AFP) – A surge in pre-election support for the Liberal Democrats, the country's third largest party, failed to translate into more seats at the election Friday but leader Nick Clegg emerged as a powerful kingmaker.

Despite the reaction to Clegg's performances in pre-election TV debates -- dubbed "Cleggmania" -- the Lib Dems emerged from Thursday's election with just 57 of the 650 seats available, fewer than before.

The result was a major blow for Clegg, who had proclaimed an end to the century-old political domination of Labour and the Conservatives, and he admitted Friday it had been a "disappointing night".

"We simply haven't achieved what we had hoped," the 43-year-old said.

But Clegg soon found himself as the power-broker in the first hung parliament since 1974, as the Conservatives took the most seats but failed to win a majority -- meaning the keys to 10 Downing Street remain up for grabs.

After hours of uncertainty, Clegg announced that the Tories should have first chance at trying to form a government because they had won the most seats.

Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown conceded their right to do this, while leaving the door open to the Liberal Democrats himself, notably by highlighting a pledge to hold a referendum on voting reform, one of the Lib Dems' key demands.

Cameron welcomed Clegg's offer and said he wanted to forge a "comprehensive" deal with the Lib Dems, but he highlighted a few key areas where he would not change policy -- and which could prove major sticking points.

His opposition to further EU integration and calls for tough immigration and defence policies are at odds with europhile Clegg's plans for an immigrant amnesty and to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent.

And although Cameron promised an inquiry into electoral reform, he repeated his support for the first-past-the-post voting system, something the Lib Dems are intent on changing because it penalises small parties like them.

With results declared, the Lib Dems had lost five seats to hold just 57 in the House of Commons, despite getting 23 percent of the vote.

By contrast, Labour got around 29 percent of the vote but won 258 seats, while the Conservatives won around 36 percent and 306 seats.

"The arbitrary and unfair nature of the electoral system has been highlighted very brutally by these results," Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable told Sky News television.

Lib Dem lawmakers and peers, including Clegg, are due to meet at midday Saturday in London to discuss the outcome of the election.

Any coalition deal would have to be approved by three-quarters of the parliamentary party, the Lib Dems' ruling federal executive and possibly its full membership.

Among the party's losses on election night was the colourful Lembit Opik, known for his relationship with Cheeky Girl popstar Gabriela Irimia. He lost the Welsh seat of Montgomeryshire to the Conservatives.

But they also scored some notable wins, including snatching Norwich South from former Labour interior minister Charles Clarke, and Redcar from former Labour solicitor-general Vera Baird.

Although they were clearly hampered by the electoral system, commentators suggest "Cleggmania" collapsed because it was driven by a widespread enthusiasm for something new, which fell as the Lib Dems became better known.

"Most of the people who supported Clegg after the (first TV) debate didn't really know what the Lib Dems stood for," said Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University.

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