The Nationals’ David Layzell has taken an early lead in the Upper Hunter byelection in New South Wales, but it may be days before a winner is declared in the crucial vote.

Both major parties are sweating on the results, which could push the Gladys Berejiklian government further into minority, or increase the pressure on Jodi McKay’s position as Labor leader.

A few hours after voting closed at 6pm on Saturday, Layzell was polling about 30% of first preference votes, with Labor’s Jeff Drayton on about 20%.

Independent Kirsty O’Connell, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers’ Sue Gilroy, and One Nation’s Dale McNamara were all polling around 10%.

The contest is likely to come down to preference flows, with neither major party likely to win the seat outright.

Delays are expected due to the high number of pre-poll votes, with some 23,000 votes cast early.

The Nationals had held the seat by 2.6%, before MP Michael Johnsen’s resignation over sexual assault allegations and a sexting scandal prompted the byelection.

Johnsen denies the allegations and has not been charged.

The byelection contest has centred on the future of coalmining in the region, with O’Connell and the Greens’ Sue Abbott wanting to move the region away from its reliance on coal.

But Labor – Drayton is a former coal miner – and the Nationals have talked up their coal credentials.

In a last-ditch appeal to voters, Drayton said he would fix years of neglect suffered under the Nationals, who have held the seat for 90 years.

“I’m ready to go – ready to go to Macquarie Street and fight for people of the Upper Hunter’s fair share,” he said while campaigning on Saturday.

The byelection has been fought as a four-cornered contest between the incumbent Nationals, Labor, One Nation and the Shooters party.

All four candidates spent much of the campaign seeking to outdo each other in their support for the coalmining industry. By far the region’s largest employer, it has become a flashpoint in the Hunter Valley due to both a swathe of land use conflicts with the agriculture sector and fears of a shift away from coal amid global pressure on Australia to decrease emissions because of the climate emergency.

The Nationals had entered the final week of the campaign confident of holding on to the seat, despite dwindling support, which has seen their margin erode from 23% before the 2015 election to just 2.6% before Saturday.

Standing alongside Nationals’ candidate Layzell on Friday, the deputy premier John Barilaro urged voters: “Don’t change that jockey mid-race.”

“In 18 months [at the 2023 election], if we haven’t done a good job by then, of course, send us a message,” he said. “But now’s not the time.”

Friday’s result will almost certainly heap more pressure on McKay. The Labor leader has struggled to make any impression on voters in NSW despite the government there being beset by a string of controversies, and polling released in the final week of the campaign showed that a majority of Labor voters preferred the Coalition’s Berejilian as premier.

Labor has never held the Upper Hunter, but her rivals in the party are sure to use a poor result as evidence of the need for a change of leadership.

Beyond coal, much of the election has been taken up by an ongoing feud between Barilaro and the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. The deputy premier accused Turnbull of being “treacherous” after he donated $3,000 to the campaign of O’Connell’s, a fifth-generation farmer from near Muswellbrook who was one of the only candidates in the race calling for a moratorium on new coalmines and calling for the Hunter’s economy to diversify.

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