Australians are going to the polls Saturday with observers predicting a close finish between conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his Labor opponent Kim Beazley. Asylum policy has dominated the final stages of the campaign - even though both parties favor the same tough anti-illegal immigration platform.
In the months leading up to the voting, hundreds of illegal immigrants headed by boat for Australia - only to be turned away. Prime Minister John Howard has staked out a tough immigration policy - one that has boosted his popularity among voters.
But that lead narrowed in the final days of campaigning when two asylum seekers drowned attempting to enter Australia. The government also took a hit when it came to light that the prime minister had apparently misstated facts about one incident when the Navy intercepted one of the illegal boats carrying asylum seekers.
The asylum issue has dominated the entire five-week election campaign. It began with the Howard government's refusal to allow the Norwegian freighter to land in Australia with its cargo of 400 mainly Afghan refugees back in August. It marked the start of an uncompromising stance on asylum by Mr. Howard - who is seeking a third term.
Despite the latest setback, John Howard is ahead in most of the major opinion polls but only just. His main opponent, Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, has conducted a confident campaign. While the conservative Mr. Howard has concentrated on asylum and the government's commitment to the U.S. led war on terrorism, Mr. Kim has focused on domestic matters.
But it has often been difficult for the Labor leader to get his messages about education, tax and health across at a time of global insecurity and media attention glued to the story of the boat people.
Voting in Australia, like former communist countries, is compulsory. It has been a legal obligation for all eligible voters to cast their ballots since 1924 - and abstainers without a good reason can be fined.