By TIM JOHNSTON, New York Times, Nov. 25, 2007
SYDNEY, Australia, Nov. 24 — Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, one of President Bush’s staunchest allies in Asia, suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the electorate on Saturday, as his Liberal Party-led coalition lost its majority in Parliament.
He will be replaced by Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party leader and a former diplomat. “Today Australia looks to the future,” Mr. Rudd told a cheering crowd in his home state of Queensland. “Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward.”
Mr. Howard’s defeat, after 11 years in power, follows that of José María Aznar of Spain, who also backed the United States-led invasion of Iraq, and political setbacks for Tony Blair of Britain.
Mr. Howard conceded nearly two hours after the last polling booths closed in the west of the country.
“A few moments ago I telephoned Mr. Kevin Rudd and I congratulated him and the Australian Labor Party on a very emphatic victory,” Mr. Howard told a roomful of emotional supporters.
“I leave the office of prime minister with our country prouder, stronger and more prosperous than ever,” he said.
Returns for a small number of seats are yet to be compiled, but analysts estimate that over all the Labor Party gained 28 seats to win a comfortable 22-seat majority in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament, where governments are formed. Official results are expected within the next day or two.
Mr. Howard may suffer the indignity of losing his own seat in the Sydney suburb of Bennelong, which he has held for 33 years, to a former television anchor and rookie politician. He would be the first sitting prime minister to lose his seat since 1929.
It was a bruising campaign, and the Liberal Party has said it will challenge some results on the grounds that the Labor candidates had broken electoral law by failing to resign from government jobs before running for office. The Labor Party said it had broken no laws.
Mr. Rudd, 50, campaigned on a platform of new leadership to address broad concerns about the environment, health and education. He has said his first acts as prime minister would include pushing for the ratification of the Kyoto agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and negotiating the withdrawal of Australia’s 500 troops from Iraq.
Analysts said the leadership change was unlikely to bring a radically new foreign policy, although they expected a shift in emphasis in the relationship with the United States, Australia’s closest ally. “Australia will remain a close ally of the United States, and Rudd remains committed to the alliance,” said Michael Fullilove, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. But he noted that “if there is a Democratic administration elected next year, to some extent they would become closer.”
Mr. Howard has a strong personal relationship with Mr. Bush that is based on a similar socially conservative philosophy and a shared outlook on terrorism.
Australian opinion polls have shown that although Australians remain strong supporters of the so-called Anzus alliance — the security pact among Australia, New Zealand and the United States — they do not approve of Mr. Bush or the Iraq war.
The attempts by Mr. Howard’s coalition to stress its economic record apparently failed to impress voters. The Australian economy has had 17 years of continuous growth, lately driven by Chinese demand for Australian iron ore and coal. Mr. Howard had warned voters that a Labor victory would endanger the country’s prosperity.
But despite the coalition campaign, there was little distance between the two parties on economic policy, and the defining characteristics came down to the personalities of the leaders. In addition, Mr. Howard was running for a historic fifth term in office, and many voters said they were ready for a change.
“Howard is out of touch,” said George Varvaressos, 52, who voted in eastern Sydney on Saturday morning. “It’s the arrogance of being in power for too long — he hasn’t been listening.”
If Australia’s strongest military and political alliance is with Washington, the fuel for its economy is coming from China. Mr. Fullilove says Mr. Rudd’s ability to manage the relationship between Canberra, Washington and Beijing would be crucial.
Mr. Rudd, 18 years younger than Mr. Howard, has a reputation as a cerebral student of policy, as opposed to the Liberal leader’s image of a hardened and aggressive political animal.
“He seems more personable, approachable. He doesn’t seem arrogant — yet — and I have respect for him,” said Marcelle Freiman, who voted for Mr. Rudd in eastern Sydney on Saturday.
Mr. Rudd’s dry image was altered by the news that he had visited a strip club during a trip to New York in 2003.
He served as a diplomat in Beijing and speaks Mandarin. He impressed many with a fluent address to Chinese President Hu Jintao when Mr. Hu visited Australia in September.
Mr. Fullilove said Mr. Rudd’s experience regarding China is unlikely to make a significant difference to Australia’s relationship with the United States. “I would counsel against people assuming that because Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin there would be a big rebalancing of the relationship in favor of Beijing,” he said.