Embattled Australian leader casts his vote

Australian Prime Minister John Howard cast his ballot in national elections on Saturday, hoping voters would reject a younger opposition leader offering generational change and return him for a fifth straight term.

“I hope we will win. I believe we will win. It is in the hands of my fellow Australians,” Howard told reporters.

Conservative leader Howard (68) has been in power for 11 years, but has trailed in opinion polls all year behind the Labour leader, Kevin Rudd (50).
Some polls predict a landslide victory to Labour; others say Howard and Rudd are neck-and-neck.

Howard is a staunch United States ally and, if re-elected, has committed to keeping Australian troops in Iraq. He has offered voters Aus$34-billion in tax cuts, but few new policies.

Rudd has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol, further isolating Washington on both. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat would also be expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations.

Howard queued in drizzling rain to vote at a school in his Sydney electorate, heckled by Labour supporters who tried to give him Labour how-to-vote cards. “Bye, bye, Howard,” yelled one trade-union protester.

Flanked by his family, Howard told reporters he felt “very fit, very positive” and believed there had been a swing back to his government in the final days of the campaign.

In contrast, Rudd voted in humid sunshine at his local church in Brisbane in the tropical state of Queensland. In almost presidential style, he was swamped by well-wishers and friends as he walked past trendy cafés to vote, kissing his wife after placing his vote in the ballot box.

“I have to say there is a strong mood for change in Australia. People want new leadership with a positive plan for the future,” Rudd told reporters.

With Labour needing to win an extra 16 seats to take office, the result is expected to hang on marginal seats such as Howard’s Bennelong electorate in Sydney.

Betting punters rallied to back Howard to win his seat, but Labour is still a clear favourite with bookmakers to win the election. The government’s odds blew out on Saturday, with a Aus$1 bet returning Aus$3,70 if they win.

First polls close at 7am GMT in the two big east-coast states of New South Wales and Victoria. If Labour gains a big swing in the east, a result could be known about an hour later, but the result of a close poll might not be clear until 11am GMT when counting comes in from Western Australia.

Marginal

Howard risks becoming the first prime minister to lose his own seat in an election for 78 years. Boundary changes have turned his blue-ribbon Sydney electorate, which he has held since entering Parliament in 1974, into a marginal seat.

Many voters of Asian origin see Howard as anti-immigration, due to his tough stance against boat people. An anti-Muslim leaflet distributed by his party in the closing days of the campaign may reinforce their belief.

Howard once described himself as “Lazarus with a triple bypass” for his ability to be resurrected from political defeat. Even if he wins it will be his last hurrah, for he has promised to step down mid-term for his treasurer, Peter Costello.

Rudd says Howard is too old and tired to lead Australia, and has attacked a handover to Costello as undemocratic. Howard has criticised Rudd’s lack of experience, insisting a Labour government would be dominated by former trade unionists and would wreck an economy that has recorded 17 years of growth.

“So if you think the country is heading in the right direction? Don’t risk that right direction by changing the government,” Howard said on the YouTube website on Saturday, in a pitch to young voters he has struggled to woo.

Howard says that under his tenure Australia has become more secure and stable.

Since the September 11 2001 attacks in the US, Australia has been on medium security alert. Australia’s military in 2006 was at its highest operational level since the Vietnam War, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

An Australian commando died fighting the Taliban on Friday, the third soldier killed in recent months in Afghanistan.

Both Howard and Rudd want to keep troops in Afghanistan, but opinion polls show Australians are opposed to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and are losing faith in Howard’s tough security stance.—Reuters

Additional reporting by James Grubel in Sydney and Rob Taylor in Brisbane

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