SYDNEY – A poisonous Australian election campaign will reach its climax Saturday, with conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott on track to become the next prime minister at the expense of Labor’s Kevin Rudd.
With more than 1 million votes already cast and a blackout on political advertisements kicking in Thursday, the two rivals launched into a last-ditch blitz to sway voters — Abbott in Brisbane and Rudd in Canberra.
Opinion polls show Abbott as the clear favorite to become Australia’s 29th prime minister, with the latest predictions showing he will win a landslide 87 seats to ruling Labor Party’s 60.
Rudd has struggled for traction after toppling Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female leader, only weeks before calling the election — vengeance for his own ouster at her hands just before the 2010 polls.
Voters have reacted with distaste over the brutal party coups, as well as the lowbrow tone of a campaign that has seen both sides descend into cheap shots and personality politics. Some 1.1 million of Australia’s 14.7 million registered voters have already cast their ballot at early polling centers, and another 1.3 million will vote by mail.
According to political analysts, some 80 percent of electors have typically made up their minds by the time Australia’s polls roll around every three years, leaving the campaign focused on swing voters.
“Reaching these voters is not by raising serious issues, setting out a vision or challenge, it’s by emphasizing fear or by entertaining them, appealing to quick jokey references or offering bribes — the appeal to greed,” said Barry Jones, a former Labor minister and a Melbourne University fellow.
The result this time has been a campaign dominated by slogans and “gotcha” moments, with a host of eccentric minor party candidates, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Titanic-building mining billionaire Clive Palmer, adding a surreal dimension.
Instead of debate on substantial policy issues, the five-week election race has focused on picture opportunities in hard hats and safety vests at work sites, and self-portraits with children at schools.
That the conservatives have adopted Labor’s policies on health, disability and education has not helped the contest for ideas, nor Rudd and Abbott’s battle for the most punitive stance on refugees in the name of border security.