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Pandemic takes center stage in Australia's Queensland vote

The response to the coronavirus pandemic is a central theme as Australia’s tourist-popular Queensland state votes for a new government Saturday in an expected close race between the incumbent premier and an opposition challenger.

In a trend following that of next week’s U.S. presidential election, more than 1.65 million of 3.3 million eligible voters in the so-called Sunshine State voted ahead of election day. Voting at all levels of government in Australia — federal, state and municipal — is compulsory.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor Party held a slim majority of 48 seats in the 93-seat Parliament ahead of the vote. The Liberal National Party, headed by Deb Frecklington, had 38 seats and seven were held by minor parties or independents.

Polls showed a close race with Labor leading the LNP by 2 to 4 percentage points. Australia uses a preferential voting system where voters are asked to choose candidates on a numbered basis from first choice to last, with preferences often deciding which candidate wins a particular riding.

Palaszczuk has campaigned on her strong response to COVID-19 — there have only been six virus deaths in the state. But she has faced continuing criticism for shutting the borders down to New South Wales and Victoria states, stalling the state’s lucrative tourism industry.

“It’s probably the most important election Queenslanders have ever had to face and it’s a very clear choice,” Palaszczuk said.

The Great Barrier Reef straddles most of the top half of the state, while the Gold Coast tourist strip south of Brisbane, particularly popular with Asian visitors, has also sustained big losses.

The Labor government has promised billions of dollars to upgrade schools, roads and hospitals, as well as loans to businesses. Frecklington said the Liberal National Party would also upgrade hospitals and roads and secure the state’s economic future for a generation.

“Labor has dragged Queensland to the bottom of Australia’s economic ladder and we’ll stay there as long as Labor is in power,” Frecklington said.

Palaszczuk led Frecklington as preferred premier by 56% to 30% in a recent poll.

Polling booths close at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT). But the closeness of the election means the result may not be known for several days or more.