Australia's prime minister easily wins another term

October 10, 2004|By Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SYDNEY, Australia - Prime Minister John Howard and his conservative coalition easily won re-election yesterday as voters endorsed his economic platform despite misgivings about his decision to send troops to Iraq.

Labor Party leader Mark Latham, who pledged to bring most of Australia's 850 troops in Iraq home by Christmas, was unable to persuade voters to abandon Howard's ruling coalition, which has presided over 8 1/2 consecutive years of economic growth.

"I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition," said a beaming Howard, 65, after winning his fourth term as prime minister. "We are joyful that the verdict has been given by the Australian people."

Howard's defeat would have been a setback for President Bush, who counts on Australia as a key contributor to the international forces deployed in Iraq.

Howard has gone out of his way to carry out Washington's wishes, once referring to Australia as the United States' "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region. Bush described the prime minister this year as a "close personal friend." At a campaign event in St. Louis yesterday, Bush congratulated Howard and called the results "a great victory."

Latham, 43, who tried to tap into public discontent over the war in Iraq, once branded Bush "the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory." But while many Australians oppose the war, voters were not inclined to withdraw troops - and risk alienating the United States.

In the end, voters zeroed in on the economy as the most important issue and decided against handing power to an untested leader of a new generation who is known for his coarse vocabulary and for breaking a cabdriver's arm in a dispute over a fare.

Recent polls had indicated the election would be close, but in the final days Howard appears to have won over much of the undecided vote while Latham's campaign faded.

With 78 percent of the vote counted, Howard's ruling coalition had won at least 83 of the 150 seats in parliament's lower house, enlarging its majority by at least two seats. Seven seats were too close to call. The coalition, which is made up of the Liberal and National parties, was leading the Labor Party 52 percent to 48 percent.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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