Victoria goes to the polls on Saturday after a fierce election campaign, punctuated by accusations of unnamed Nazi candidates, violence at early voting booths, allegations of vote-rigging and political interference, and two anti-corruption referrals.

Daniel Andrews, the nation’s longest serving incumbent leader, is seeking a third four-year term against the Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, who took the Coalition to a devastating loss in 2018.

But the big policy differences between the major parties – the opposition’s pledge to shelve the Suburban Rail Loop project to help fund the healthcare system and Labor’s vow to revitalise a state-owned electricity corporation – have become overshadowed by personal attacks in what has increasingly become a vicious campaign.

Here’s everything you need to know about the contest, including how and why the campaign turned ugly.

What’s the state of play?

Labor won the 2018 election in a “Danslide”, securing more than 57% of the two-party-preferred vote and leaving the Coalition with 27 of the 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

To form government, a party needs 45 seats in the lower house. This means that to win outright, the Coalition needs to gain a net 18 seats. But it enters the 2022 race in a worse position than 2018, thanks to an electoral redistribution.

The opposition remains the underdog but polls suggest the race is tightening in its final days. The Age published a Resolve Strategic poll on Tuesday showing the major parties tied on first preferences, although Labor was ahead 53-47 once preferences were allocated.

There’s a lot of interest in how the Greens and independent candidates will perform off the back of the federal election result.

What are the key issues?

Both parties have focused heavily on health, announcing billions of dollars for new or upgraded hospitals. The Coalition pledged to shelve the first stage of the government’s Suburban Rail Loop project to spend more on health.

The cost of living has also been a central theme. The Coalition pledged to cap Melbourne public transport fares at $2 a day, halve regional V/Line fares and provide free transport for healthcare workers. Labor said it would slash the price of regional public transport and announced a plan to save households $250 on electricity bills. The Coalition said it would cut the electricity supply charge for six months, saving households an estimated $235, and provide $500 vouchers for those on the state’s dental waiting list.

One of the pledges with the biggest cut through has been Labor’s promise to revive the State Electricity Commission, privatised by Jeff Kennett in the 1990s. The new SEC will be responsible for building renewable energy projects, which Labor says will help to push down power prices in the long term. It includes a $1bn investment to deliver 4.5 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity, owned by the state.

Why is the campaign being called ugly?

Early on the opposition sought to make the election a referendum on the premier and his handling of the pandemic. Its decision to preference all other candidates ahead of Labor prompted the government to accuse it of supporting people with “abhorrent” views. “The Liberal party are preferencing people who are not just antisemites but they are Nazis, they are racists,” Andrews said last week, without naming candidates. The Liberals strongly rejected Andrews’ claims, with their deputy leader, David Southwick, saying the use of the term was “completely inappropriate and desperate” and the “last thing anyone wants is a Nazi in the parliament”.

Andrews’ past has also featured heavily after the Herald Sun revisited his fall down steps at a holiday house last year, and a 2013 collision with a cyclist involving his wife. The news reports dominated the premier’s daily press conferences, despite offering little new information.

Last week two referrals to the state’s anti-corruption watchdog were made on the same day. The Victorian Electoral Commission announced it was referring an investigation into an alleged attempt to circumvent a donations law involving Guy and his former chief of staff Mitch Catlin to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. Guy has denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, explosive videos of “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery bragging about his ability to exploit the system and influence multiple seats in the state’s upper house led the opposition to refer Andrews, as well as the Labor party and the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union, to Ibac.

There has also been court action over Labor billboards being removed, “dirty” flyers distributed about the Greens and an investigation into comments by the independent MP Catherine Cumming, who told an anti-lockdown rally she wanted to turn Andrews into “red mist”. Victoria police have cleared Cumming of inciteful behaviour.

At the weekend Guy said the Liberal party candidate Renee Heath would not sit within the party room if elected, after a Nine investigation into her membership of the ultra-conservative City Builders Church, which detailed allegations of gay conversion.

Why has it turned so vicious?

Dr Zareh Ghazarian, a political scientist at Monash University, said Victoria’s lockdowns had deepened political polarisation in the state.

“Some of the stuff we’re seeing now, and some of the creation of new political parties, have their root in this polarisation, especially for those who felt like the government could have dealt with Covid in a different way,” he told Guardian Australia.

“Thanks to Covid we’ve seen in Victoria some nastiness in the political discourse. We’ve seen gallows being paraded, we’ve seen all sorts of vile things said.”

Ghazarian said the campaign had also been shaped by the opposition being a significant underdog, according to polls, bookies and pundits.

“Going into the campaign, the expectation was that the Coalition was destined to lose. The polls that have come out since really haven’t shown us that there’s been massive movements in community sentiment but it could be the case that polls are missing something.”

What about the teals and Greens?

Simon Holmes à Court’s crowdfunding initiative, Climate 200, which backed teal candidates at a federal level, is directing supporters to donate to four Victorian independents running in Caulfield, Hawthorn, Kew and Mornington.

Other independents are running across the state, including Felicity Frederico in Brighton and Clarke Martin in Sandringham, both in Melbourne’s Bayside where Zoe Daniel won Goldstein from Liberal Tim Wilson at the federal election.

In Melton and Point Cook, in Melbourne’s growing west, Labor is fending off independent challengers of a different kind – prominent locals hoping to make the “safe seats” marginal in an effort to win funding for much-needed infrastructure.

Labor is facing stiff competition from the Greens in Richmond and Albert Park, where long-serving MPs are retiring, and in Northcote, which it holds on a slim margin of 1.7%.


Adeshola Ore and Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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