SYDNEY — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who emerged triumphantly from the political wilderness to regain Australia’s leadership earlier this year, is battling widespread predictions of a defeat in federal elections Saturday that would bring an end to his party’s tumultuous six years in power.
The contest pits Rudd, of the Labor Party, against Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative opposition Liberal-National coalition. Rudd, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2010, returned to the leadership in June after a nearly two-year campaign by his supporters culminated in a party coup that dispatched the country’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard.
But the Labor Party, which dumped Gillard in the hopes of averting a landslide loss that would devastate its ranks in Parliament, has struggled to shake an image that it is more focused on personal feuds than on pressing issues like the slowing of Australia’s mining-driven economy and the record number of asylum seekers trying to reach the country in dangerous and overcrowded boats.
Although Rudd’s return saw a bounce in support for Labor, which has led a minority government since its poor showing in the previous federal elections in 2010, polls indicate that surge has now evaporated. And in a remarkable reversal for a man once considered Australia’s most popular politician, analysts say the question is not whether the Labor Party will lose, but by how much, and whether the casualties may include Rudd himself, who is facing a tough fight over his own seat in Parliament.
In a survey released Monday by Newspoll, based on polling from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 among about 1,110 voters, Abbott was shown for the first time to have overtaken Rudd as the nation’s preferred prime minister by 43 percent to 41 percent, although the difference between them is within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The same poll showed Labor trailing the opposition coalition, 54 percent to 46 percent. That result would prove disastrous for Rudd and deliver a resounding majority in Parliament for Abbott.
“Maybe our Lord will materialize and touch the forehead of Kevin Rudd and anoint him his chosen representative on earth,” said Rick Kuhn, a professor of politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. “But short of that, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Saturday’s election will mark the end of the longest campaign season in modern Australian history. The contest, although officially declared by Rudd last month, has effectively been under way since January, when Gillard announced, unusually early, that the vote would be held in September. That opened an acrimonious nine-month political slog during which Gillard’s popularity, and support within her own party, collapsed.