CANBERRA – Kevin Rudd beat Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a ballot for the Labor leadership as the ruling party seeks to revive its fortunes ahead of an election that opinion polls show it will lose in a landslide.
Rudd won by 57 votes to 45 for Gillard in the Labor caucus, party official Chris Hayes said. In an interview with Sky News Wednesday in which she called the intra-party ballot, Gillard pledged to leave parliament at the election if she lost.
Rudd, 55, ousted by Gillard in a backroom coup three years ago, faces the task of turning around a 14 percentage point advantage in opinion polls for Tony Abbott’s opposition. While popular among voters, Rudd has been criticized by colleagues such as Treasurer Wayne Swan for an autocratic style, raising questions over whether Labor can unite behind him ahead of a poll currently scheduled for Sept. 14.
“A win for Rudd means Labor has a chance to save some seats at the election and avoid a wipeout,” said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “While he’s more popular with voters, the deficit Labor faces in the polls means a win for the party still seems highly unlikely.”
Speculation about a challenge to Gillard, 51, Australia’s first female prime minister, intensified as Rudd this month made campaign appearances in marginal seats, with news footage showing enthusiastic voters greeting him.
Gillard called the ballot after media reports earlier Wednesday that Rudd supporters circulated a petition calling for a special meeting of Labor lawmakers to oust her.
Momentum swung to Rudd when party powerbroker Bill Shorten, who as recently as this morning said he supported the prime minister, called a news conference 30 minutes before the ballot to say he’d switched his allegiance.
Rudd’s victory could trigger an earlier election if he cannot attract the level of support from independent lawmakers and from the minor Greens party that Gillard managed.
An independent lawmaker who supported Gillard’s minority government, Tony Windsor, said he would not support a government led by Rudd. But another independent who rejected Gillard, Bob Katter, said he would support Rudd.
Opposition leader Abbott challenged Gillard on Wednesday to bring forward the election to Aug. 3 because of the new wrangling over leadership.
“Given the paralysis now griping her government and irreconcilable differences in her party over its leadership, will she bring forward the election date to Aug. 3 and let the people decide who should run our country?” Abbott said.