- Prime Minister Gillard says "at times, it's been ugly" but insists Labor will be united
- She says she believes "that united, we can win the next election" set for 2013
- Labor Party parliamentarians vote 71-31 to back prime minister Gillard over Kevin Rudd
- Rudd, a former prime minister, says, "I accept fully the verdict of the caucus"
Lawmakers in Australia's Labor Party voted decisively Monday to back incumbent Julia Gillard as head of the party, and thus prime minister, in the face of a challenge from her predecessor Kevin Rudd.
Some 102 Labor members of Parliament weighed in by secret ballot around 10 a.m. Monday (6 p.m. Sunday ET) in the capital of Canberra, as to which of the two they wanted to lead the Labor Party. Rudd and Gillard both gave speeches of less than three minutes asking for fellow party leaders to back them.
"The mood, I think was fair to say, was reasonably tense," legislator Chris Hayes said. "Once the votes were read out, there was a certain amount of relief on the faces of the (the legislators). I think they see this as now the vehicle by which they move forward."
Added Mike Kelly, a Labor parliamentarian who backed Rudd and predicts Labor will now be unified, on Twitter: "It is like is watching your parents get divorced."
After a methodical process to keep votes confidential and then count them, Hayes said a round of applause broke out after he announced the vote and "declared Julia re-elected as the leader" of the party.
Gillard won 71 votes, compared to 31 for Rudd.
Rudd -- who, along with Gillard, was smiling yet quiet walking past a swarm of reporters after the vote -- hours later said that he accepts the results of the vote "without qualification and without rancor."
"We must serve the people and not ourselves, and that is what I dedicate myself to doing," he said, adding that he bears "no grudges" to those who opposed him. "I accept fully the verdict of the caucus and I dedicate myself to working fully to (Gillard's) reelection as the prime minister of Australia."
A short time later, Gillard described the vote as an "overwhelming endorsement" and promised Australians that "this political drama is over and now you are back at center stage."
"The last week has seen us, the women and men, of the Labor Party focused inwards, focused on ourselves. At times, it's been ugly," she said. "We have come together before and we will do so now. We will move forward as a united team."
Adding that she felt "impatient because I want to get on with the job of building this country's future," Gillard promised that she'll be a "stronger and more forceful advocate" going forward.
And she expressed confidence that Labor, under her leadership, could win the election now scheduled for November 2013.
"I absolutely believe that united, we can win the next election and I am very determined that ... we can do so," Gillard said.
Days earlier, Gillard had called for the secret ballot in hopes, she said, of ending growing leadership speculation "once and for all."
"This is not an episode of 'Celebrity Big Brother,' this is about who should be prime minister," she said last Friday, adding her colleagues needed to decide "who's got the strength, the temperament, the character, the courage to lead this nation."
A win in Monday's vote would have made Rudd prime minister -- a position he held once before, having led Labor in 2007 to its first election win in 21 years by defeating the conservative coalition government led by then Prime Minister John Howard.
But Rudd lost the prime ministership in 2010, after his then-deputy Gillard successfully challenged him, claiming the government "was losing its way."
Last Friday, Rudd said that it was Gillard who had "lost the trust of the Australian people" and prompted his decision to "contest the leadership of the Labor Party."
He contended that he was best positioned to do that and stave off a challenge from a strengthened opposition, which he described as one of the most right-wing in Australia's history.
"I want to finish the job that the Australian people elected me to do when I was elected, by them, to become prime minister," Rudd said.
For a time, Rudd had been one of the country's most popular serving prime ministers. But his popularity waned after he was seen to backtrack on his commitments to climate change and and when he tried to impose additional taxes on Australia's powerful mining industry.
While his public approval ratings remain consistently higher than that of his successor, Gillard, Rudd has proven less popular among fellow Labor members of parliament.
Prior to Monday's vote, Labor Party parliamentarian Steve Gibbons wrote on Twitter that "only a psychopath with a giant ego" -- a reference to Rudd -- "would line up again after being comprehensively rejected by the overwhelming majority of colleagues."
Gibbons later released a statement, applauding Rudd for the "magnificent victory in 2007" but faulting "his chaotic and deeply offensive style of leadership since then (that) gradually eroded the goodwill that (the Labor Party) caucus had awarded him."
In her speech to Labor Party legislators Monday, Gillard "spoke about the advances that have been made over the course of the last 18 months in government and what we need to do to position ourselves to win the government next time," according to Hayes.
The ruling Labor Party has seen its support evaporate since pushing the conservative coalition from power in 2007, and recent polls indicate it would lose an election under Gillard's leadership if it was held now.