Bush ally Howard defeated in Australian election
SYDNEY, Australia -- Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, one of the Bush administration's staunchest allies, suffered a humiliating election defeat Saturday at the hands of an opposition leader who has vowed to pull troops out of Iraq.
Labor leader Kevin Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, has also promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the U.S. as the only industrialized country not to have joined it.
Rudd, speaking Sunday in the northeastern city of Brisbane at his first news conference as incoming prime minister, promised "action, and action now" on climate change. Rudd said Labor lawmakers were due to meet on Thursday, and he hoped that he and his ministers would be sworn in soon after that.
Howard, who reshaped his country's image abroad with unwavering support for the war in Iraq, dominated Australian politics for more than a decade but failed to read the signs that voters had grown tired of his rule.
Adding to the sting of his party's decisive defeat, official results showed Howard was likely to lose his parliamentary seat altogether. Only one other sitting prime minister has lost his district in the 106-year history of Australia's federal government.
The six-week campaign was fought largely over domestic issues such as economic management, and Howard's unpopular labor law reforms that critics say strip workers of their rights.
But a strong underlying factor was the prospect of a generational change.
Rudd, who was expected to be sworn in as prime minister in the coming week, had accused Howard of being out of touch with modern Australia and ill-prepared to deal with issues such as climate change and high-speed Internet.
Howard campaigned on his economic management, arguing that his government was mostly responsible for 17 years of unbroken economic growth, fueled by Chinese and Indian demand for Australian coal and other minerals. He contended that Rudd could not be trusted to maintain prosperous times.
Rudd said he planned to visit Washington next year, and that atop the agenda would be his plan to pull Australia's 550 combat troops out of Iraq. Howard had rejected withdrawal plans for Australia's troops in Iraq, and refused to ratify the pact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward," Rudd said Saturday in a victory speech before hundreds of cheering supporters in his home state of Queensland. "To plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians to unite and write a new page in our nation's history."
The White House President Bush called Howard and Rudd Saturday evening.
"The president and Prime Minister-elect Rudd both said they look forward to working together to strengthen even further the U.S.-Australia relationship," White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"The President told Prime Minister Howard he appreciates his friendship and his strong leadership over the past seven years they have worked together, which has resulted in a stronger U.S.-Australia alliance."
Australia is the latest country to see elections throw out governments that contributed to the U.S. war in Iraq.
Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has vowed to take a firmer stand in relations with the United States. He said in his inaugural address Friday that by the end of next year Poland would withdraw its 900 troops from Iraq, where it leads an international contingent of about 2,000 soldiers from 10 nations in the south-central part of the country.
Howard had stayed on to fight for a fifth term in office despite months of negative opinion poll numbers and appeals from some colleagues to quit. He took the blame for his government's defeat.
"I accept full responsibility for the Liberal Party campaign, and I therefore accept full responsibility for the coalition's defeat in this election campaign," Howard said in his concession speech in Sydney.
He said it appeared "very likely" he would lose his seat in parliament to former television journalist Maxine McKew.
The outgoing government fell into turmoil almost immediately, with Howard's nominated successor, outgoing Treasurer Peter Costello, announcing Sunday he would not accept the post of opposition leader.
The surprise announcement opens the possibility of a bruising fight for the leadership, with outgoing Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and former Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull likely candidates.
Rudd's Labor Party had more than 53 percent of the vote with over 75 percent of ballots counted, compared to 46.8 percent for Howard's coalition, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
An Australian Broadcasting Corp. analysis showed that Labor would get at least 81 places in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament -- a clear majority.
Few in Rudd's team have any federal government experience. They include a former rock star -- one-time Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett -- and a number of former union officials.
Rudd has more experience in foreign policy than any other area of government, and was expected to adopt a nuanced, non-confrontational approach to diplomacy. He sent "greetings ... to our great friend and ally the United States" in his victory speech.