SYDNEY • As the count from a crucial Australian by-election continued yesterday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced the possibility that his Liberal Party may have been too quick to concede a contest that would reduce his administration to a minority government.
Mr Morrison became Australia's sixth prime minister in 10 years in August after his predecessor, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, fell victim to infighting among the Liberals. The suspense over the count in Sydney's affluent Wentworth constituency was in keeping with the unpredictable politics of recent times.
Last Saturday, Mr Morrison had surrendered the seat after the early count showed a swing of more than 20 per cent away from the Liberals.
But by yesterday evening, his candidate Dave Sharma trailed an independent rival by about 1,600 votes with several thousand votes still to be counted, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) said.
Still claiming victory, but sounding less sure, the independent candidate Kerryn Phelps described the wait for the result as a "white knuckle ride" in a post on her Twitter account. "Holding our breath for the AEC outcome," she tweeted.
Should the Liberals lose Wentworth, Mr Morrison's conservative coalition will probably have to rely on support from independent lawmakers to survive the next few months, as a general election is due by May next year.
The contest had gathered international attention after Mr Morrison's late attempt to garner support from Jewish voters, who account for 13 per cent of Wentworth's electorate, by suggesting Australia could recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.
What impact that gambit had was unclear, but with his parliamentary majority hanging by a thread as the count continued, Mr Morrison acknowledged that whatever the outcome, voters were clearly disillusioned with his party.
"The gap has closed by several hundred votes. There are still many postal votes to be counted," he told reporters in Sydney. "But, that said, yesterday Liberal voters expressed their anger."
Mr Morrison said if the vote margin gets as close as 100 votes, an automatic recount would be triggered, giving his conservative coalition a slim chance of retaining its one-seat majority in Parliament.
It could be some days before the uncertainty is cleared as postal votes received within 13 days after the ballot are still counted.
The Liberal Party's poor showing was partly attributable to Wentworth voters' disillusionment with the way party rebels had dumped Mr Turnbull, said Mr Morrison.
Mr Turnbull, the local MP, resigned after being toppled in a party coup in August. He had held the seat with a comfortable margin of 18 per cent, but support for the Liberals tumbled over his treatment.
Concern over the government's lack of action to combat climate change was another key issue for voters.
But even though the ruling Liberal-National coalition looks set to lose its majority, Mr Morrison pledged yesterday that his embattled government would serve out a full term.
"Australian people expect governments to serve their term. We are elected to serve our term and that is what we are going to do."
Mr Morrison signalled he was willing to work with minor parties and independents to address what Dr Phelps said would be the first item on her agenda - removing refugee children held in Australian detention camps on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Canberra sends asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat to remote Pacific facilities, including on Nauru, to deter them from trying to come to Australia.
There has been growing international and domestic pressure on Mr Morrison to move the children to Australia amid reports they are suffering from serious health problems.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE