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article imageBritain votes in pivotal 'Brexit election'

By Dmitry ZAKS (AFP)     Dec 11, 2019 in Politics

Britain voted on Thursday in a deeply divisive election that posed a historic choice between an imminent split from the European Union and another referendum that could scrap the entire Brexit process.

A decisive victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the third poll in less than five years would almost certainly end Britain's 46-year involvement in the European project at the end of next month.

The kingdom would cut ties with its closest trading partners and look to regain the legal and border controls Brexit supporters sought in the original 2016 EU membership vote.

But a win for the opposition, or a hung parliament, could still reverse Brexit and give Britain a hard-left government headed by Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn -- a veteran socialist committed to renationalisation and massive public sector spending.

Britons braved winter storms and howling winds as they lined up to cast ballots in what Johnson and Corbyn have both called the most important vote in a generation.

Johnson voted in London with his dog Dilyn -- a furry Jack Russell he picked up and kissed before a swarm of reporters -- while Corbyn was greeted at his polling station by a protester dressed up as the "Sesame Street" character Elmo.

Opinion polls show Johnson's ruling Conservatives heading for a narrow majority.

But the pollsters were almost unanimously wrong about the last general election in 2017 and Johnson has said the outcome rested on a "knife edge".

The British pound was down nearly one percent against the dollar in expectation of exit polls at 2200 GMT. The first official results are due to start coming in an hour later.

- Brexit dominates -

UK leaders and parliamentarians have frustrated their European partners and depressed the investment climate by dragging out the divorce well past its original deadline of March 29.

UK votes 2016  2017
UK votes 2016, 2017
Christopher HUFFAKER, Sophie RAMIS, AFP

Parliament's splintered parties -- some seeking broader independence and others wanting to keep Britain's European ties -- repeatedly rejected the separation terms former prime minister Theresa May struck with Brussels.

Johnson took over in July but was also stymied. The 2016 Brexit campaign's figurehead now hopes to win a clear-cut majority that hands him a mandate that makes Britain the first country to leave the European bloc.

"Just imagine how wonderful it will be to settle down to a turkey dinner this Christmas with Brexit decided," he said in a final message to voters.

- EU watches -

Yet the complex process of unwinding ties between the single market of 27 remaining EU nations and the bloc's second-biggest economy would run on long after the first stage of Brexit ends next month.

Boris Johnson took his dog Dilyn to the polling station
Boris Johnson took his dog Dilyn to the polling station

Brussels has indicated that Johnson's plans to seal a comprehensive trade deal needed to secure smooth future relations before a December 2020 deadline is unrealistic.

That would again raise the prospect of Britain facing a no-deal scenario that plunges business and the economy into fresh uncertainty.

Many officials in Brussels privately say they hope Johnson wins a working majority that lets new talks get quickly underway.

"Obviously, its entirely a decision for the people of the UK to elect whatever government they want and I just hope the result is decisive so that we know where we're going over the next few months," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters in Brussels.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate the terms of Brexit
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate the terms of Brexit

Corbyn's proposal for Brexit is for Labour to strike a more EU-friendly agreement with Brussels. Voters would then choose between that deal and the option of staying in the bloc.

But he has refused to publicly back or oppose Brexit and instead cast himself as an "honest broker" who would carry out voters' wishes -- no matter the outcome -- in a bid to unite the country.

- Voter fatigue -

Johnson has been hammering home his message to "Get Brexit Done" against a backdrop of voter fatigue and anger at the political morass.

Corbyn was met at his London polling station by a protester dressed up as the 'Sesame Street&ap...
Corbyn was met at his London polling station by a protester dressed up as the 'Sesame Street' character Elmo

"I wasn't happy. Brexit should not be dominating," voter Gaurang Naik said.

Pollsters YouGov last month predicted that Johnson's Conservatives would have a comfortable 68-seat majority.

That estimate was down to a 28-seat lead in a final tally released on Tuesday.

"There's more volatility than there ever has been before," YouGov political research manager Chris Curtis told AFP.

Corbyn's hopes of heading the government would depend on support from the pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats.

But SNP backing for a Labour coalition government could come at the cost of a promise to back a second referendum on Scottish independence next year.

Corbyn has said he is open to one at a later date.

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