Australians go to the polls this Saturday, with conservative Prime Minister John Howard fighting for his political life against his left-of-center rival, Kevin Rudd. Mr. Howard has been in office for more than a decade, and is seeking a fifth consecutive term as leader. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Australians have a clear choice in this election. Prime Minister John Howard has been in power since 1996, and his re-election campaign is emphasizing his experience. Mr. Howard, a 68-year-old former solicitor, says his rival, Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, should not be trusted to manage a prosperous economy or handle national security.
One major point of difference between Rudd and the prime minister is the war in Iraq.
In a fiery televised debate in late October, the Labor leader said he would pull Australian soldiers out of Iraq if he wins the election, while Mr. Howard insisted the troops should stay until their job was done.
"When the rotation ends in about the middle of next year, I believe that that force will undertake an even greater training role to bring the Iraqi forces up to a situation where they can look after themselves - which, after all, is the practical end result of our commitment," he said.
"Mr. Howard, why should Australians believe you any more about where that will go," Rudd countered, "when on the eve of the last election, you said, in response to a question, that you would not increase our troops in Iraq, and as soon as you won the election you virtually doubled our troops in Iraq?"
John Howard is Australia's second longest-serving prime minister. His critics insist he has become stale and unimaginative.
His loyal supporters, such as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, say Mr. Howard's experience should be valued and not thrown away.
"I know John Howard and regardless of his, you know, chronological age, this is a man who's extraordinarily energetic and fit and I think people can see that (he) is absolutely consumed with the job," Downer said. "I think there's a tremendous virtue in sticking with what you know and what works well, rather than just changing for the sake of changing. It's always a risk to change."
Labor's Kevin Rudd is 50. During the campaign, Rudd has been promoting himself as a younger, more vigorous alternative to Mr. Howard.
Labor's deputy leader, Julia Gillard, says voters are ready for a change.
"Even people who have been good supporters of the Howard government would probably say to themselves that the best days of this government are behind it, not in front of it, and if you say yes to that question, then I think you've got to think about the alternative, and I think Kevin is developing and showing the skills of a leader," she said.
A defining element of the Howard years has been the prime minister's strong friendship with U.S. President George Bush, which has helped shape Australia's foreign policy. Canberra has deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, John Hart, a political scientist at the Australian National University, says Mr. Howard and his pro-American policies register far more strongly in Australia than in the U.S.
"Most Americans wouldn't recognize him if he walked down Fifth Avenue during the rush hour. I don't think he features highly on American's agenda," Hart noted. "It's quite clear the Howard-Bush relationship has been a very close and personal one…there is still a lot of Americans who'd be surprised if you told them that Australia had actually committed troops to fight in Iraq."
Despite his pledge to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, Rudd has promised to maintain the close alliance with the United States.
Rudd, a former diplomat, also hopes to enhance Canberra's relations in Asia. John Hart says Rudd could be especially effective with China, where his linguistic abilities and his knowledge of the country could be of use to both Australia and the United States.
"Rudd's language ability plus his deep knowledge of Chinese affairs may help Australia have a bigger impact in China than it does at the moment, and that might in turn might be very helpful for the alliance with the United States, if the United States is willing to take Kevin Rudd into its confidence and make use of him when it comes to matters relating to its relationship with China," he said.
The vote is on Saturday, and opinion polls have consistently put Rudd ahead of Mr. Howard. Analysts have said the prime minister might even lose his own parliamentary seat.
John Howard, though, is a wily politician and a proven campaigner. He has come from behind to win elections in the past.