LONDON – LONDON (AP) — Britain's Labour and Conservatives jockeyed for the support of smaller parties Friday after a close-fought election that, for the first time in four decades, produced no outright winner.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg dented Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown's hopes of staying in power by calling on the Conservatives to try to form a government, without indicating whether his centrist party would be willing to join a coalition.
As sitting prime minister, Brown would traditionally be given the first chance to put together a government. His left-of-center Labour party is seen as a more natural coalition fit with the Lib Dems, the third-place party now thrust into the role of potential kingmaker.
But Clegg said the party that had gained the most seats and the most votes — the Conservatives — should have "the first right to seek to govern."
"I think it is now for the Conservative Party to prove that it is capable of seeking to govern in the national interest," he said,
Despite winning the largest number of House of Commons seats in Thursday's election, David Cameron's Conservatives fell short of a majority that only a few months ago was considered inevitable. Labour was on track to lose nearly 90 seats in Parliament but still could govern with the help of the Liberal Democrats.
The biggest — and surprise — loser was Clegg, who failed to capitalize on his stellar TV debate performances.
Talks were expected between political players Friday but a definitive result could take days — or weeks. A period of political wrangling and confusion in one of the world's largest economies could unsettle global markets already reeling from the Greek debt crisis and fears of wider debt contagion in Europe. Britain's budget deficit is set to eclipse even that of Greece next year, and whoever winds up in power faces the daunting challenge of introducing big government spending cuts to slash the country's huge deficit.
In London, bond trading started in the middle of the night — six hours earlier than normal — as traders tried to make sense of the election results. Britain's main stock index and the pound fell Friday as investors reacted to the inconclusive result against a backdrop of global market turbulence.
In the first minute of trading, the FTSE 100 share index was down 1.3 percent at 5,193. The British pound traded as low as $1.4449 by late morning, down from $1.51 less than 24 hours earlier.
With 617 of the 650 seats counted, the Conservatives had secured 291 seats, Labour 248, the Liberal Democrats 51 and smaller parties 27 seats. At least 326 of the House of Commons' 650 seats are needed to form a government.
"The country has spoken — but we don't know what they've said," former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said, summing up confusion.
Polling stations around the country were overwhelmed by those interested in casting ballots in the most hotly contested election in a generation, but hundreds of people were blocked from voting due to problems with Britain's old-fashioned paper ballot system.
Turnout for the vote was 65.2 percent, slightly higher than the 61 percent seen in Britain's 2005 election.
Cameron insisted that voters had rejected Brown and his Labour party.
"Our country wants change. That change is going to require new leadership," Cameron said Friday.
Brown vowed to "play my part in Britain having a strong, stable" government and indicated he would seek an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, pledging action on election reform — a key demand of his would-be partners.
A British election that produces no clear winner political convention allows the incumbent the first attempt to form a government. He has more than a week to hold talks aimed at reaching a pact with smaller parties.
Brown said Friday he had asked senior civil servants to begin the formal process of aiding negotiations between parties. Politicians and mandarins have been rehearsing for a hung Parliament scenario in hopes of avoiding market-wobbling uncertainty.
"It is my duty as prime minister to take all steps to ensure Britain has a strong, stable and principled government," Brown said in a statement.
Anger flared when voters in London, Sheffield, Newcastle and elsewhere complained that they had been blocked from voting as stations closed — and the head of Britain's Electoral Commission said some legal challenges to results because of blocked votes were likely.
Police had to quell a sit-in protest in east London by 50 angry residents who were denied the chance to vote. Liz Veitch in the east London area of Hackney said she'd been frozen out after waiting for more than an hour and a half, with a line still stretching down the street.
"There are an awful lot of extremely angry people around here," she said. "It's an absolute scandal."
Crowds tried to block officials from taking the ballot boxes in Sheffield, as officials struggled to cope with staggering turnout.
Electoral Commission chief Jenny Watson acknowledged that Britain's paper voting system had been unable to cope with a surge of voters.
Senior Labour figures lost no time Friday in reaching out to the Liberal Democrats in hopes of blocking Cameron. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said, given the election results, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were "honor bound" to talk to each other.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson of Labour backed Clegg's call for an end to the existing system in which the number of districts won — not the popular vote — determines who leads the country. The current system, he said, "is on its last legs."
Still the Conservatives remained hopeful they will form a government. Lawmaker Micheal Gove said any pact between Brown and Clegg would be a "coalition of the defeated."
The Conservative Party's billionaire deputy chairman blamed Britain's first-ever televised election debates for his party's failure to oust Brown immediately.
The debates "quite obviously turned everything topsy-turvy," Michael Ashcroft said.
In theory, a majority requires 326 seats. However, in practice Cameron could govern as a minority government with a dozen or so fewer because of ad hoc alliances he could form for key votes, and the fact that some parties would be unlikely to join a discredited Labour camp.
Former British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith was the biggest Labour lawmaker to lose her seat after being caught attempting to bill the public for porn movies watched by her husband.
But Labour won the northern England seat of Rochdale — where Brown made the biggest gaffe of the campaign, caught on an open microphone referring to an elderly voter as a "bigoted woman" after she buttonholed him on immigration. Brown later visited her home to apologize.
In the southern England resort town of Brighton, Britain's first-ever Green Party lawmaker, Caroline Lucas, was elected.
The Conservatives were ousted by Labour under Tony Blair in 1997 after 18 years in power. Three leaders and three successive election defeats later, the party selected Cameron, a fresh-faced, bicycle-riding graduate of Eton and Oxford who promised to modernize its fusty, right-wing image.
Under Brown, who took over from Blair three years ago, Britain's once high-flying economy, rooted in world-leading financial services, has run into hard times. In addition, at least 1.3 million people have been laid off and tens of thousands have lost their homes in a crushing recession.
Associated Press writers David Stringer, Paisley Dodds, Raphael G. Satter and Danica Kirka also contributed to this report.