Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd appeared set for a sweeping victory in Australia’s elections today, ending a conservative era and ushering in major changes to policies on global warming and the Iraq war.
The win handed outgoing Prime Minister John Howard a humiliating end to a career in which he became Australia’s second-longest serving leader – and who had appeared almost unassailable as little as a year ago.
Potentially adding insult to injury, Howard was among government lawmakers in danger of losing his seat in Parliament – a result that would make him only the second sitting prime minister in 106 years of federal government to be dumped from the legislature.
Official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed Labour far in front with more than 60% of the ballots counted. Using those figures, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation analysis showed that Labour would get at least 81 places in the 150- seat lower house of Parliament – a clear majority.
“On the numbers we’ve seen tonight, Labour is going to form a government,” deputy Labour leader Julia Gillard said on ABC television.
Howard was expected to concede defeat later today, before Rudd would formally claim victory.
Howard’s four straight election victories and 11 years in power make him one of Australia’s most successful politicians. He has presided over an unprecedented economic boom, fuelled by demand from China and India for coal and other resources dug from Australia’s Outback.
But, at 68, Howard has suffered widespread perceptions that he has stayed too long.
Rudd, a 50-year-old former diplomat who speaks fluent Chinese, says Howard is ill-equipped to deal with new challenges like global warming and a high-speed internet network.
He has said his first priority if he is elected will be to sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, something Howard has refused for years to do.
Rudd also says he would withdraw Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq, leaving twice that number in mostly security roles. Howard says all the troops will stay as long as needed.
Howard was one of US President George W Bush’s staunchest allies, and reshaped Australia’s image abroad with his unwavering support for Bush’s war against terrorism.
Australia’s foreign relations are not expected to change much if Rudd wins, however.
Mark Apthorpe, a 24-year-old information technology worker who lives in Howard’s district of Bennelong, said that he was happy with the way the economy was being managed – but that he voted for Labour anyway because it was time for a change.
“Johnnie’s said a few things that he has gone back on,” Mr Apthorpe said of Howard. “He’s been around a long time, and he’ll be gone in 18 months anyway.”
Howard earlier this year announced plans to retire within about two years if he won the election, sparking claims of arrogance.