Britain went to the polls Thursday in a general election expected to give Prime Minister Tony Blair the mandate to complete a historic second full term in power.
Despite claims to the contrary from the opposition, his ruling Labour Party is in line for a comfortable victory, possibly even outshining its landslide win four years ago.
If Labour wins by anywhere near its current 179-seat margin in parliament, Blair could become the first prime minister in the party's history to complete a second full term.
More than 40,000 polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT), and were to close at 10:00 pm, when first exit polls will be available.
The first results are due just over one hour later, with the bulk arriving by 4:00 am Friday. More than 44 million people are registered to vote.
The result, according to opinion polls, is barely in doubt.
An eve-of-poll survey in The Times put Labour on course for 45 percent, 15 points clear of the main opposition Conservative Party on 30 percent.
Another poll in the Daily Telegraph showed the lead slightly larger, Labour 17 points ahead on 47 percent to 30. The figure had changed from earlier with fresh polling statistics.
The Liberal Democrats, Britain's third main party, were shown at 18 percent in both newspapers.
Blair and Tory leader William Hague were due to vote during the morning in their own constituencies.
The prime minister was expected to spend most of the day in his Sedgefield constituency in northeast England, Hague in Richmond, northern England, and Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy in northern Scotland.
Early voting was slow, as usual.
Twin sisters Emma and Rebecca Handbury, from Chesterfield, central England, celebrated their 18th birthdays by voting for the first time.
Rebecca said she was "over the moon" that the election had been moved from Blair's original preferred date of May 3, which would made them too young to vote.
"I went for Labour," said Steve Devlin, 32, in leafy Putney, southwest London. "I'm a traditional supporter. I'm quite happy with what they've done so far."
Henry Barnes, 79, thought the opposite. "I don't think they (Labour) have done a lot for us," he told AFP.
"I voted for Labour last time, but this time I changed to Conservative. It's going downhill, it's going down fast."
One key factor will be turnout. In 1997 it was 71 percent, but polls this time suggest it could drop to as low as the mid-60s, the worst for more than 80 years.
Blair drove his case for a second successive Labour government in a final plea late Wednesday.
Anxious to avoid apathy which Labour fears could hit its vote, he said the Conservatives "deserved to be defeated" because they were offering a programme of policies they did not believe in.
He said: "Don't let the cynics win, don't let these pessimists win and tell you nothing can ever get better.
"Don't let those people who tell you don't bother to vote, when not voting would return us to the Conservative years."
Hague, rallying his own supporters said: "Tony Blair is saying you have to vote for him because he has got so much to do in the next four years.
"The reason he's got so much to do in the next four years is because he has done nothing in the last four."
The result could determine whether Hague remains at the Tory helm or face a leadership battle, with some senior figures -- unhappy at the party's lurch to the anti-Europe right -- reportedly preparing a challenge if the defeat is too humiliating.
The centre of Labour's re-election strategy has been its promise to invest in public services, notably health and education, with tens of thousands extra staff and a package of wide-ranging internal reforms.
It says its handling of the economy in its first term -- interest rates and unemployment down, investment and incomes up -- means it can now push on with making Britain a fairer place for all.
The Tories' key campaign promises are swingeing tax cuts, no entry into the European single currency for at least five years, reduced government, tougher action against immigration and crime and better public services.
There is another election going on too. Voting is also taking place for 45 local authorities in England and Northern Ireland, with nearly 2,500 seats up for grabs – LONDON (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )