- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative alliance easily won a fourth term in Australia’s parliamentary elections yesterday in a contest viewed by some as a referendum on Mr. Howard’s decision to back the United States in Iraq.

The island continent’s robust economy under Mr. Howard’s leadership, however, apparently overshadowed concerns about the war. It has grown during every one of Mr. Howard’s nine years in office, with unemployment close to all-time lows and inflation running at just 2 percent.

The election was watched abroad as the first referendum for the three main leaders in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, with President Bush facing voters in three weeks and British Prime Minister Tony Blair probably facing elections next spring.

Mr. Bush was quick to praise the victory.

“I want to congratulate my good friend Prime Minister John Howard, who won a great victory,” he said yesterday at a campaign event in St. Louis.

With more than three-fourths of the votes counted, official results gave Mr. Howard’s coalition 52.4 percent to Labor’s 47.6 percent.

The outcome means Australia will make good on Mr. Howard’s pledge to keep 900 troops in Iraq until Iraqi authorities say they are no longer needed. The opposition Labor Party led by Mark Latham had vowed to bring Australian soldiers home by Christmas if it won.

Australian troops have not suffered any casualties and do not have combat roles.

A jubilant Mr. Howard claimed victory late yesterday in front of hundreds of cheering supporters at a Sydney hotel after it became clear his government would increase its majority in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament, where government is formed. Voters also chose 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate.

“I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition,” Mr. Howard, 65, said.

He did not mention Iraq by name during his speech, but said Australia had gained international respect “because we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in.”

Mr. Howard also took some credit for Afghanistan’s presidential election also taking place yesterday.

“That election has been made possible by reason of the fact that a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and to take a stand against terrorism,” he said.

While many Australians opposed involvement in Iraq, the issue played a secondary role in the six-week campaign. Instead, Mr. Howard and Mr. Latham, 43, concentrated on social issues such as the economy, health and education.

Mr. Howard repeatedly warned that a Latham government likely would drive up interest rates for the millions of Australians paying off home loans and otherwise hurt the economy.

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