Australians prepare to vote in federal elections

Labor Party facing likely defeat after tumultuous six years in power

Millions of Australians voters will take to the polls on Saturday morning in an election which is expected to remove the Labor Party from power after six years.

Prime minister Kevin Rudd, who emerged triumphantly from the political wilderness to regain Australia's leadership earlier this year, is battling widespread predictions of a defeat.

The contest pits Mr Rudd against Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative opposition Liberal-National coalition. Mr Rudd, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2010, returned to the leadership in June after a nearly two-year campaign by his supporters culminated in a party coup that dispatched the country's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard.

But the Labor Party, which dumped Ms Gillard in the hopes of averting a landslide loss that would devastate its ranks in parliament, has struggled to shake an image that it is more focused on personal feuds than on pressing issues like the slowing of Australia‘s mining-driven economy and the record number of asylum seekers trying to reach the country in dangerous and overcrowded boats.


Although Mr Rudd’s return saw a bounce in support for Labor, which has led a minority government since its poor showing in the previous federal elections in 2010, polls indicate that surge has now evaporated. And in a remarkable reversal for a man once considered Australia’s most popular politician, analysts say the question is not whether the Labor Party will lose, but by how much, and whether the casualties may include Mr Rudd himself, who is facing a tough fight over his own seat in parliament.

In a survey released Monday by Newspoll, based on polling from August 30th to September 1st among about 1,110 voters, Mr Abbott was shown for the first time to have overtaken Mr Rudd as the nation‘s preferred prime minister by 43 per cent to 41 per cent, although the difference between them is within the poll‘s margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The same poll showed Labor trailing the opposition coalition, 54 per cent to 46 per cent. That result would prove disastrous for Mr Rudd and deliver a resounding majority in parliament for Mr Abbott. "Maybe our Lord will materialise and touch the forehead of Kevin Rudd and anoint him his chosen representative on earth," said Rick Kuhn, a professor of politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. "But short of that, I don't think it's going to happen."

Saturday’s election will mark the end of the longest campaign season in modern Australian history. The contest, although officially declared by Mr Rudd last month, has effectively been under way since January, when Ms Gillard announced, unusually early, that the vote would be held in September. That opened an acrimonious nine-month political slog during which Ms Gillard’s popularity, and support within her own party, collapsed.

Mr Rudd came back into office promising a kinder, gentler brand of politics in place of the famously adversarial relationship between Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott. Indeed, Mr Abbott is perhaps best known outside Australia for a blistering speech Ms Gillard delivered in parliament in 2012, in which she called him a misogynist and a sexist with "repulsive double standards".

A former Roman Catholic seminarian with socially conservative stances on abortion and gay marriage, Mr Abbott is closer ideologically to the US Republican Party than to European conservatives like prime minister David Cameron's Tories in Britain. He has made the repeal of a carbon-trading plan passed by Ms Gillard the centerpiece of his campaign, and as recently as 2009 he denied the existence of climate change caused by humans.

Opinion polls show that Australians overwhelmingly support both abortion rights and legalising same-sex marriage and accept the majority scientific opinion that human activity has contributed to climate change. Owing at least in part to his conservative views, and because he is not known as a naturally gifted speaker, Abbott has struggled to connect with voters.

Still, Mr Abbott's hard-nosed political skills have allowed him to capitalise on the perception that Labor has lost its way as a party, said John Wanna, a political-science professor at the Australian National University.

“I think one of the big messages from this time, when we look back in history, will be that Labor spent four years tearing itself apart, and I think the electorate has gotten tired of that,” Mr Wanna said.

Despite Mr Rudd's stated intention of running a positive campaign focused on the issues, this election cycle has stood out for the level of negativity deployed not just by the rival political parties, but also by the news media. Mr Rudd in particular has come in for unusually pointed criticism from publications owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph, Mr Murdoch’s tabloid in Sydney, ran a series of anti-Rudd editorials on its front page, including one in which he was depicted as Col Klink from the 1960s US television comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes”, wearing a Nazi uniform and a monocle.

Yesterday, Clive Palmer, a mining magnate who founded his own center-right party that is likely to peel away some votes from the opposition coalition, said he would sue Murdoch over a front-page article in his flagship national paper, The Australian. The article in question called Palmer "a buffoon" and said he posed a threat to democracy.

New York Times