SYDNEY, Australia – Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd swept to power in Australian elections Saturday, ending an 11-year conservative era and promising major changes to policies on global warming and the Iraq war.
"Today Australia has looked to the future," Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, said in a nationally televised victory speech, to wild cheers from hundreds of supporters.
"Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward ... to embrace the future, together to write a new page in our nation's history," he said.
The win brought a humiliating end to the career of outgoing Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party, Australia's second-longest serving leader who, as little as a year ago, had appeared almost unassailable.
Howard faced further potential embarrassment. The voting results in his own district were on a knife edge, and he was in real danger of becoming only the second sitting prime minister in 106 years of federal government to lose his seat in Parliament.
Howard said he was likely to lose it, and took full blame for the drubbing handed to his center-right coalition.
"I accept full responsibility for the Liberal Party campaign, and I therefore accept full responsibility for the coalition's defeat in this election campaign," Howard said in his concession speech in Sydney.
Official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed Labor far in front after more than 70 percent of the ballots had been counted — with 53 percent of the vote compared to 46.7 percent for Howard's coalition.
Using those figures, an Australian Broadcasting Corp. analysis showed that Labor would get at least 81 places in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament — a clear majority.
The change in government also marks a generational shift for Australia.
Rudd, 50, had urged voters to support him because he said Howard was out of touch with modern Australia and ill-equipped to deal with new-age issues such as climate change.
Howard campaigned on his economic management, arguing that his government was mostly responsible for 17 years of unbroken growth, fueled by China's and India's hunger for Australian coal and other minerals, and that Rudd could not be trusted to maintain prosperous times.
A new government is unlikely to mean a large-scale change in Australia's foreign relations, including with the United States — it's most important security partner — or with Asia, which is increasingly important for the economy.
One of the biggest differences will probably be in Australia's approach to climate change. Rudd has nominated the issue as his top priority, and promised to immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.
When he does, the United States will stand alone as the only industrialized country not to have signed the pact.
Rudd said he would withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq, leaving twice that number in mostly security roles. Howard had said all the troops will stay as long as needed.
At home, Rudd has pledged to govern as an "economic conservative," while pouring money into schools and universities. He will curtail sweeping industrial reforms laws that were perceived to hand bosses too much power, turning many working voters against Howard.
Labor has been out of power for more than a decade, and few in Rudd's team — including him — has any government experience at the federal level. His team includes a former rock star, one-time Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett, and a number of former union officials.
But analysts say that Rudd's foreign policy credentials are impeccable, and that he has shown discipline and political skill since his election as Labor leader 11 months ago.
Rudd's election as Labor leader marked the start of Howard's decline in opinion polls, from which he never recovered.
Howard's four straight election victories since 1996 made him one of Australia's most successful politicians. But his refusal to stand down before this election, even after being urged to do by some party colleagues, mean his legacy will be tarnished by the hubris of staying too long.
Mark Apthorpe, a 24-year-old information technology worker who lives in Howard's district of Bennelong, voted for Rudd even though he was happy with the way the economy was being managed.
Like many voters, he said it was time for a change.
"Johnnie's said a few things that he has gone back on," Apthorpe said of Howard. "He's been around a long time, and he'll be gone in 18 months anyway."
Howard earlier this year announced plans to retire within about two years if he won the election, sparking claims of arrogance.