Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Tuesday that a general election will be held in Britain May 6 in what analysts believe could be one of the closest and most unpredictable contests in modern British politics.

Brown, 59, will be seeking an unprecedented fourth term for the ruling Labour Party which has been in power since 1997. But he faces a stark challenge from the Conservatives, who hope to return to power under David Cameron after 13 years in opposition.

The Liberal Democrats, the third party in British politics, hope to increase their share of the vote and play a key role in the formation of the new government, should the outcome be close.

Making his announcement on the steps of Downing Street, surrounded by his entire cabinet, Brown singled out the fight to secure Britain’s budding economic recovery as the key issue of his campaign.

“Britain is on the road to recovery. Get the big decisions right – as we did in the last 18 months since the world recession – and jobs, prosperity and better standards of living will result,” he said.

“Get the big decisions wrong and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are diminished as a result,” he added, in a clear jibe at the Conservatives who have made early spending cuts to reduce state debt a key plank of their campaign.

“I ask for a clear and straightforward mandate to continue the hard work to secure economic recovery,” said Brown. The poll will be his first electoral test as prime minister after he took over the job without a vote or contest from Tony Blair in June, 2007.

Brown’s challenger, 43-year-old Cameron, said he was ready to lead his party into the “most important general election in a generation.”

Under his leadership, there was now a “modern conservative alternative” in Britain. “You don’t have to put up with five more years of Gordon Brown,” Cameron told supporters Tuesday.

A Conservative win would mark a “new future for the economy, society and the country,” he pledged.

Meanwhile the Liberals, traditionally consigned to an opposition role in Britain’s first-past the post majority voting system, hope to increase their voting share of around 20 per cent and play a bigger political role.

“This will not be a two horse race,” its leader, Nick Clegg, vowed Tuesday. The Liberals have been pinning their hopes on opinion polls which show that the May 6 poll could result in a “hung parliament” – which means that none of the two major parties win an outright majority.

If that should happen, the Liberals could be called upon to play the role of “kingmaker,” supporting the government of the day on issues of policy without entering a formal coalition, in return for political concessions.

“This is going to be the most exciting and unpredictable election in many years – the outcome is delightfully uncertain,” said one analyst Tuesday.

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