SYDNEY - Centre-left leader Kevin Rudd stormed to victory in Australia's election Saturday, ending conservative Prime Minister John Howard's 11-year rule with pledges to change course on climate change and the Iraq war.
Howard, US President George W. Bush's closest ally in the Iraq war, conceded defeat in Sydney and admitted it was "very likely" that he also faced the rare humiliation of losing his own electoral seat.
"A few minutes ago I telephoned Mr Rudd and I congratulated him and the Australian Labor Party on a very emphatic victory," Howard told emotional supporters in a concession speech at a Sydney hotel.
Labor's stunning victory, in which it was expected to claim as many as 86 of the parliament's 150 seats, means it now controls the central government and all eight state and territory administrations.
Howard wished the Labor Party leader well and told him that he was inheriting an economy that was the envy of the world.
"This is great democracy and I want to wish Mr Rudd well," said the wily political veteran who dominated his country's politics for more than a decade.
"He assumes the mantle of the 26th prime minister of Australia and I want to say that there is no prouder job a man can occupy than being the prime minister of Australia."
Fresh-faced former diplomat Rudd, speaking in his hometown of Brisbane, accepted victory before an ecstatic audience of supporters with a pledge to get to get down to work immediately and "write a new page in our nation's history."
"The future is too important for us not to work together to embrace the challenges of the future and carve out our nation's destiny," Rudd said, flanked by Australia's new first lady, Therese Rein, and their children.
To rapturous applause from his supporters, the beaming new leader called for the nation to unite and promised he would be "a prime minister for all Australians."
"A prime minister for indigenous Australians, Australians who have been born here and Australians who have come here from afar and contributed to the great diversity that is our nation Australia."
Rudd, who has attracted criticism from Bush for promising to pull Australian combat troops out of Iraq, where they back the US-led forces, also held out an olive branch to Washington's increasingly isolated conservative administration.
He moved to allay fears that he may seek to step back from Canberra's close ties with Washington and pointedly stressed that he still regarded the United States as a friend.
"I extend our greetings tonight to our great friend and ally the United States," he said.
Rudd also spoke of the hardship being suffered by Australian farmers, who are facing the country's worst drought in a century, a crisis that has focused national attention on the issue of climate change and Howard's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
Rudd has pledged to ratify the protocol, which aims to curb the emission of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
While officials continued tallying votes, Howard, 68, accepted full responsibility for his Liberal-National coalition government's stunning defeat, but said he had left a proud legacy.
"I want to say on behalf of the coalition that has governed this country for the last 11-and-a-half years that we bequeath to him a nation that is stronger and prouder," said the outgoing prime minister.
Howard, known for getting himself out of political scrapes, acknowledged that he was at the end of his political career.
He has won four general elections and has presided over Australia's booming economic growth since becoming prime minister in 1996.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's vote tally predicted that when the final vote was counted, Labor would win with 53 percent of the vote, compared to 47 for Howard's Liberal-National coalition.
That would give Labor 86 seats in the 150-seat lower house of representatives, well above the 76 it needs to take power, while the coalition would be left with just 62, sharply down from the 86 it won in 2004.
Independents are likely to win the remaining two lower house seats.
Official figures showed Labor with 53.3 percent of the vote compared to 46.7 for the government with 73 percent of votes counted.
Howard's seat in the Sydney area of Bennelong hung on a knife edge, with former television newscaster Maxine McKew well within range of victory.
If she wins the seat Howard has held since 1974, he would become the first sitting prime minister to lose his parliamentary seat in 78 years.
Howard had campaigned on his party's record on the economy, which is booming on the back of China's demand for its mineral resources, warning that a Labor victory would threaten the country's prosperity.
But he faced strong opposition fuelled by unpopular policies such as new labour laws, which critics said cut wages, and his support for the Iraq war and opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.
Copyright © AFP 2007