SYDNEY, Australia – Prime Minister John Howard scored a convincing victory in Australia’s federal election Saturday, winning a historic fourth term in a vote ensuring the staunch U.S. ally keeps its troops in Iraq.
With more than 70 percent of votes tallied, Howard appeared likely to increase his government’s majority in parliament — exceeding most analysts’ predictions that the result would be very tight.
“My fellow Australians … I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition,” Howard told cheering supporters of his conservative alliance in Sydney.
“In accepting their charge to lead the nation I rededicate myself and all of my colleagues to the service of the Australian people.”
Labor Party leader Mark Latham earlier conceded defeat before supporters in western Sydney, saying he called Howard to congratulate him.
“Tonight was not our night,” Latham told the crowd.
The election was widely seen abroad as the first referendum for the three leaders who launched the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with President Bush facing a ballot next month and British Prime Minister Tony Blair probably facing voters next year.
The Labor Party had vowed to bring the roughly 900 Australian troops deployed in and around Iraq home by Christmas, while Howard insisted they will stay until Iraqis ask them to leave. Australian troops have not suffered any casualties and none have combat roles.
Australians have focused more on the economy, health and education than on Howard’s unpopular decision to join the Bush-led coalition in Iraq. Howard sent 2,000 troops to Iraq last year, prompting accusations he was Bush’s lackey.
Latham argued that the Iraq invasion was a distraction from the international fight against terrorism, and he wanted to focus Australia’s security policy closer to home in Southeast Asia.
That was a clear nod to his country’s fears of attacks after the Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on Bali Island that killed 202 people, many of them Australians, and the Sept. 9 bombing of the Australian Embassy that killed nine people.
With about 77 percent of votes counted, official figures showed Howard’s coalition had 52.4 percent to Labor’s 47.6 percent, giving the conservatives a clear lead in the race for a majority in parliament’s 150-seat lower house, where government is formed.
“I think at this stage of the evening it’s going to be almost impossible for Labor to win this election,” Labor Sen. Robert Ray told Channel Nine television. “We are too far behind in too many seats at this stage for victory.”
The campaign also hinged on personalities, with three-term incumbent Howard, 65, seen as a colorless but reliable steward of the economy, and Latham, 43, perceived as young and energetic but also inexperienced and sometimes undisciplined.
Australian voters chose candidates for all 150 seats in the federal parliament’s lower house — the House of Representatives — and 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate. A total of 1,091 candidates were standing for the House of Representatives and 330 for the Senate.
The country has 13 million registered voters.
Howard voted Saturday at a school after taking a walk around Sydney Harbor, where he asked passers-by not to use their votes to punish his conservative coalition for unpopular policies.
“It’s certainly not an occasion for anyone to think they can give us a protest kick and still re-elect us — if enough people do that we’ll lose,” he said.
At the polls, a man in line said to the prime minister: “Mr. Howard, if you win, I’m moving to Europe.”
Another woman asked him when he was going to stop lying to the Australian public. Howard ignored the man and said “thank you” to the woman.
John Atkins, 59, voting in Sydney, said he did not approve of Latham’s plan to withdraw from Iraq, even though he initially opposed the Iraq deployment.
“I was very concerned when the Labor Party said it would pull out the troops by Christmas,” he said. “We should never have gone in, but once we had we need to stay.”
Latham shook hands with well-wishers as he entered his Sydney polling site.
“We’ll be seeking the support of the Australian people, particularly for a world-class health and education system, and taking the financial pressure off families,” he said.
Howard’s center-right government and the opposition both focused their campaigns on pledges to improve the education and health systems, and debated which party can best run the economy and maintain a boom fueled largely by rising property prices.
Howard repeatedly warned voters a Latham government would likely drive up interest rates — a sensitive issue for millions of homeowners.
Australia’s economy has grown during every year of Howard’s administration has been in office. Unemployment is close to all-time lows and inflation is just 2 percent.
Latham insisted he could fund his policies and keep interest rates low and the economy growing.
Howard is in his ninth year in office and is expected to retire before serving out his full three-year term.
Had Latham won, he would have become one of the country’s youngest leaders.