Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party is on course to return to power in the UK, an exit poll has projected.

The exit poll, released as polls closed at 21:00 GMT on Thursday night, projected that the Conservative party would win 316 seats, with Labour winning 239, the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning 58 and the Liberal Democrats winning 10 seats.

Cameron said his Conservative party's policies in the last government had been vindicated by the result.

"Some people say there's only one opinion poll that counts and that's the one on election day, and I don't think that's ever been truer than tonight," he said referring to polls that had put his party neck and neck with the opposition Labour Party.

"This has been a very strong night for the Conservative Party," he added.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, speaking after he retained his Doncaster North seat, said he was "disappointed" in the result.

"It's clearly been a very disappointing and difficult night for the Labour Party, we haven't made the gains we wanted in England and Wales, and in Scotland we've seen a surge of nationalism," he said.

"I am deeply sorry for what has happened," 

The right-wing UK Independence Party was projected to win two seats.

If correct, the projections showed that the Conservatives would still be left short of the 326 seats required to form a majority government in parliament.

Senior Conservative lawmaker Michael Gove said the exit poll pointed to a clear win for his party.

"If it is right, then it means the Conservatives have clearly won this election, and Labour has clearly lost it," he told the BBC.

Projected SNP gains

The exit poll showed huge gains for the SNP, potentially increasing its parliamentary presence by more than 50 seats.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, however, said in a tweet that the exit polls should be treated with caution.

"I'd treat the exit poll with HUGE caution," Sturgeon wrote. "I'm hoping for a good night but I think 58 seats is unlikely!"

Polls across the country of 65 million people opened at 06:00 GMT.

The Conservative party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats at the last election in 2010, ending Labour's 13-year grip on power.

But small parties - including the Scottish National Party and the UK Independence Party - are also contesting the election in what Al Jazeera's Laurence Lee has called an "explosion of parties all vying for authority".

Ballots were cast in around 50,000 polling stations dotted around the country, including in unusual places like pubs, caravans and even garages.


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With no party likely to win a majority, analysts said assembling a government could take days or weeks, although counting the votes takes a matter of hours.

"This election looks likely to shatter the two-party system of government that has existed in Britain since the end of the Second World War," Lee reported from London.

Since 1945, political power in the UK has changed hands from Labour to the Conservatives but that pattern ended in 2010 when the Conservatives failed to win a majority.

Campaign issues  

The economy, the National Health Service and immigration have turned out to be the major issues in the campaign.

Prime Minister David Cameron has focused on headline numbers after five years of budget cuts designed to shrink the deficit and bolster growth.

Although the British economy boasts one of the fastest growth rates among large industrialised nations, Labour's leader Ed Miliband is urging voters to look deeper, arguing the topline figures do not tell the whole story.

Real wages are below pre-crisis levels, he says, and employment figures have been inflated by low-skill jobs, and rising numbers of people are turning to food banks to make ends meet.

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Miliband has focused the debate on inequality, saying the recovery has not reached working families. He is promising to increase taxes on the wealthiest members of society.

If the election results are not decisive as widely expected, negotiations between the parties could start immediately.

Analysts have said protracted talks to form a coalition government could rattle financial markets, with the pound taking a pummelling. 

"There will be a strong civil service presence saying: 'Do you look at the markets? You had better get a grip. You'd better work something out,'" said Leeds University political scientist David Seawright.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies