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Australians await next prime minister

Elections end in hung Parliament

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2010

Will conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott replace the Labor Party's Julia Gillard as Australia's prime minister?

That question lingered Monday morning in Australia and could remain unanswered for days, after Saturday's federal elections produced the country's first hung Parliament in seven decades.

"The people have spoken, but it's going to take a little while to determine what they said," Ms. Gillard said in her postelection speech, borrowing a line from former President Bill Clinton.

A more triumphal Mr. Abbott, who managed to close a double-digit gap in the polls, declared that Labor had "lost its legitimacy."

"A government unable to govern with [a majority of] 17 seats will not be able to govern with a minority," he said.

With 78.1 percent of the vote counted as of Monday morning, Labor had won 72 seats, four shy of a governing majority in the Australian House of Representatives.

The "Coalition" — the right-wing alliance between Mr. Abbott's Liberal Party and the smaller National Party — had won 70, though it was projected to pick up three more.

The inconclusive result has given decisive power to the nonaligned "gang of five" — the newly elected Green Party member of Parliament and four independents.

The three incumbent independent members of Parliament have pledged to stand "shoulder to shoulder," in the words of one, as they are aggressively courted by both sides.

Alan Tidwell, director of Georgetown University's Center for Australia and New Zealand studies, noted that the five-week campaign had devolved into a "personality contest," bereft of large-issue debates, partly because voters were still getting acquainted with the candidates, both of whom had come to power over the past year in intraparty coups.

"If you had said to me a year ago that Tony Abbott would be leading the Liberal Party, I would've laughed," Mr. Tidwell said. "I mean, I'd have said he was one of the top contenders, but I wouldn't have thought everything would've come this quickly."

"Equally," he added, "if you'd said to me that Julia Gillard was going to be the leader of the Labor Party in a year's time, I would've said, 'You've got to be kidding me,' not because she isn't capable. I just thought [Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd would've lasted longer. So both these people, I would've said they might've led the next election, in 2013 — but not 2010."

In November 2007, Labor leader Mr. Rudd won a landslide against four-term Liberal incumbent John Howard on a platform of change.

But his astronomical approval ratings began to tumble this spring after he abandoned stalled legislative efforts on his signature issue of climate change, prompting the surprisingly successful June leadership challenge from Ms. Gillard, who was then deputy prime minister.

Ms. Gillard is Australia's first female prime minister.

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