Britain's 2010 general election has given the country its first hung Parliament in more than three decades. An electorate distrustful of politicians, angry about the economic crash and the illegal invasion of Iraq, and anxious about the future, has voted, as Lord Mandelson, a senior member of the Labour government, put it, to “turn the page in the political book” without deciding “which chapter to open.” The last time there was an indecisive outcome was in 1974 when the Conservative government of Edward Heath was reduced to a minority, leading to political instability and fresh elections eight months later. Will history repeat itself? This is the question being asked as both the Conservative and Labour parties scramble to find allies to form a government. The former has emerged as the largest party by some distance. But it is unenviably short of a majority in the 650-member House of Commons; and together, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are closer to the halfway mark. Labour's hopes of leading a coalition government seemed to suffer a blow when Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, whose party fared worse than expected but has emerged as kingmaker, declared that it was the Conservative Party with “more votes and more seats” that “should seek to govern in the national interest.” But he stopped short of committing support to any party — leaving the door open for some tough negotiations, especially around his main demand for radical electoral reform. This could be a tactic to get a better deal from Labour, whose leader has skilfully played the ball back into Mr. Clegg's court. Regional players such as the Scottish National Party, the Unionist parties of Northern Ireland and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru will have an unaccustomed role in determining the shape of the next government.

In a comparable situation in India, the single largest party would have been more or less assured of the first turn at government formation. Under the British constitutional arrangement, however, the incumbent Prime Minister has the right to remain in office until he or she chooses to resign or is defeated on the floor of the House. In 1974, Mr. Heath, who was in the same situation that Gordon Brown is today, hung on for several days before conceding defeat when an attempted deal with the Liberal Party failed. Labour leader Harold Wilson then formed a minority government, which lasted only a few months. Britain has had five hung parliaments since the beginning of the 20th century — 1974 was the last — and on each occasion, fresh elections followed within months. There are fears that whoever gets to form the new government, the United Kingdom is headed for a period of political and economic instability.

More In: Editorial | Opinion