SYDNEY (Reuters) - Polling closed on Saturday in an Australian by-election being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's handling of bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, with a tight contest expected.
The result in the bushfire-hit electorate of Eden-Monaro will not affect the balance of power in Australia's parliament, but it may be a barometer of opinion on Morrison, whose popularity fell over his handling of the devastating fires but seems to have improved with his response to the new coronavirus.
"It will be a close call," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told reporters at a polling booth in Tumut in the sprawling Eden-Monaro electorate on the south coast of New South Wales state. "I'm not quite sure whether the actual result will be known tonight."
Kristy McBain of the centre-left Labor Party and Fiona Kotvojs of Morrison's conservative party are vying for the seat of an opposition lawmaker who retired due to ill-health.
Morrison's popularity slumped earlier this year, particularly in Eden-Monaro which was badly damaged by bushfires, after he took his family on holiday to Hawaii as blazes raged across the country.
He later won plaudits, however, for the government's aggressive action to limit the spread of the pandemic. The policies are credited with helping Australia record about 8,300 infections and 104 deaths - well below many other countries.
The next federal election is due by mid-2022.
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Swati Pandey; Editing by William Mallard)