Voting in Australia's national election has ended, with conservative Tony Abbott almost certain to oust Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. A controversial carbon tax and refugee policy were key election issues.
With nearly 21 per cent of the vote counted, the state-run broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Commission called a clear win for the conservative opposition under Abbott (pictured above center).
The ABC predicted that Abbott's Liberal/National coalition will win 90 seats in the 150-seat lower House of Representatives, as against just 58 for Rudd's Labor Party.
"The coalition is on a pretty secure 74 seats already. On that basis they're going to get a majority. I think we can say the government has been defeated," ABC election analyst Antony Green said.
Some 14.7 million people were required to take part in Saturday's mandatory vote.
A Sky News exit poll issued earlier in the day showed Abbott's coalition leading Rudd's Labor Party 53 per cent to 47 per cent.
The poll, based on 1,000 interviews in Labor swing seats across the states of New South Wales and Queensland, showed the conservatives winning 97 seats in the 150-member lower House of Representatives.
Several senior Labor ministers have already conceded defeat. Defense Minister Stephen Smith has told ABC television that "the government will be defeated tonight."
Australia's Labor party has been in office since 2007, first under Rudd, then Gillard, and then under Rudd again since earlier this summer.
If the predictions are confirmed, the election result could put an end to the country's first minority government since World War II.
Carbon tax central issue
Incumbent Prime Minister Rudd has seen his popularity erode after years of party instability and infighting, combined with an unpopular carbon tax on polluters.
Abbott has dubbed the election the "referendum on the carbon tax" as part of his vow to end the controversial measure. Many Australians believe that companies who are forced to pay the tax are passing those extra costs onto their customers.
Rudd had also promised to scrap the carbon tax, which was brought in by his own party after the 2010 election, and move to a carbon emissions trading scheme by July 2014.
According to a Galaxy survey in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, an overwhelming 78 percent of people surveyed said that Abbott had run a better campaign, compared to just 8 percent for Rudd.
'Turning back the boats'
Another key pre-election issue has been asylum-seeker policy, with both parties coming up with plans to stem the flow of refugee boats arriving in the country's northwest, mostly from Indonesia.
In July, Labor pronounced a tough new policy that sees all asylum seekers arriving by boat sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the Pacific for processing and resettlement.
Labor has claimed the plan is working, with only 1,585 asylum reaching Australia by boat in August, less than half of the 4,236 who arrived in the previous month.
The Liberals have foreshadowed new policies such as using the navy to turn refugee boats back to Indonesia and buying back aging fishing boats from Indonesian villages to stop them being obtained by people smugglers.
Both candidates faced raucous heckling by refugee advocates on election day. Australia's refugee policies have come under harsh criticism internationally as well, with the UN refugee agency warning in July that the current scheme could breach international law.
tj, dr/lw (AFP, AP)