Australians on Saturday voted in a general election billed as one of the tightest in decades in which their first woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard is pitted against her Conservative rival Tony Abbott.

Polling stations, set up at 7700 locations across the country, opened at 8 a.m. local time (0330 hrs IST) and more than 14 million people were enrolled to vote, with last- minute opinion polls showing only a small gap between Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott.

Voting booths had stockpiled 43 million ballot papers and were being supervised by some 70,000 temporary electoral staff.

A final opinion poll indicated that 48-year-old Gillard’s Australian Labour Party (ALP) was leading by a small margin, with the fate of the candidates resting on regional swings.

According to the poll for The Age, Ms. Gillard’s two-month-old Prime Ministership was hanging in balance.

Her Labour party was leading at 52 per cent in the Age/Nielsen poll, down a point in a week, while the opposition Coalition was at 48 per cent. There has been a swing of about 1 per cent against the Labour since 2007, the report said.

Nearly one in five people were somewhat likely or very likely to change their mind before voting.

However, Ms. Gillard still held a healthy lead as preferred Prime Minister even if her approval had fallen in the campaigns last week.

Pollster John Stirton said Labour would need to perform well in its marginals to hang on.

Taking into account the margin for error, the figures suggest the result could range from a comfortable Labour win to a narrow win for Coalition led by 52-year-old Conservative leader Mr. Abbott.

“A very narrow Labour win is the most likely outcome, but it all depends on whether incumbency can tip the ALP over the line in the marginals,” Mr. Stirton said.

In the poll of 2040 people taken between Tuesday and Thursday, Labour’s primary vote was on 39 per cent, down 1 point, while the Coalition’s vote was 41.5 per cent, up 0.5.

The Greens were polling 13 per cent, up a point.

When the three Nielsen polls since August three were combined, they indicated Labour doing less well in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia but better in Victoria, the report said.

In the current poll, the Coalition was ahead in Queensland while Labour had a narrow lead in NSW.

The gender difference in the poll was also evident, with Labour ahead of the Coalition, 54-46 per cent among women, while men are divided 50-50 per cent.

Ms. Gillard’s approval is down 4 points to 50 per cent while her disapproval is up 5 points to 41 per cent. Mr. Abbott’s approval is 46 per cent, up one point; his disapproval is also up 1, to 49 per cent.

Ms. Gillard leads as preferred Prime Minister by 51 per cent (down 1 point). Almost two-thirds of voters (64 per cent, up 5 points) expect Labour to win, while just 22 per cent (down 5) predict a Coalition victory.

According to another Newspoll survey conducted by The Weekend Australian daily with 2500 voters from Tuesday to Thursday, Labour had 50.2 per cent support on a two-party-preferred basis to the Coalition’s 49.8 per cent.

Based on preference flows at the 2007 election, Labour has suffered a 2.5 percentage point swing away from it since that election and a 1.8 point swing against it since last weekend.

Labour’s primary vote was 36.2 per cent, with the Coalition on 43.4 per cent and the Greens on 13.9 per cent.

A national uniform swing of 2.5 per cent against Labour would wipe out the government’s majority, with the loss of 13 seats, and result in a hung Parliament.

Labour has suffered in its primary vote in Queensland in the last week of the campaign, down eight percentage points in just three days to 27 per cent, compared with 42.9 per cent in 2007.

In NSW, Labour’s primary vote was down from 39 per cent to 35 per cent, compared with 44.5 per cent at the last election.

This suggested Labour could lose up to 25 seats in those states alone — far more than it could pick up in South Australia and Victoria, where there was a swing to Labour.

Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott on Friday campaigned vigorously on the final day before the polls opened this morning.

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