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Australian voters head to polls to elect ruling government

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
September 7, 2013 -- Updated 0118 GMT (0918 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Voting under way throughout Australia
  • Polls show opposition leader Tony Abbott on track to win Australian election
  • Victory for Abbott would bring a sudden end to Kevin Rudd's second shot at the job
  • Rudd came to power in the 2007 election, but was ousted by Gillard in 2010

(CNN) -- Millions of Australian voters headed to polling booths Saturday to cast their votes after a bitter five-week election campaign, which has pitted incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd against opposition leader Tony Abbott.

In the final days of the campaign, polls suggested Abbott's Liberal-National coalition has enough support to end the Australian Labor Party's six-year reign.

Rudd has been back in power for less than three months after ousting Julia Gillard in a leadership challenge. It was seen as something as payback time for Rudd, who Gillard tipped out of the top seat in 2010.

Commentators say the Australian electorate has tired of the revolving door of Labor leaders, which has been accompanied by reports of in-party feuding, mud-slinging and back-stabbing.

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READ MORE: Tony Abbott: Australia's next leader?

Rudd was voted in by his Labor colleagues in late June after polls consistently showed Gillard's government was on track for a steep election loss. They had been hoping Rudd would charm voters as he did when he stormed to victory over Liberal leader John Howard in 2007.

While Rudd succeeded in lifting Labor's ratings early on, the honeymoon shine soon faded, and in the final days of the campaign Rudd vowed he'd fight to the end.

"For those who say the fight is up, I say they haven't seen anything yet," he told his campaign launch in Brisbane.

READ MORE: Best Australian election gaffes

What about Syria?

The focus of this election is very much on domestic issues, including the economy, education and broadband Internet services. The international quandary over the scale of any military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria seems to have been set aside, for now.

Abbott has indicated he'll take a cautious approach to any Australian involvement in foreign conflicts, if he comes to power. However, Rudd has used the debate to attack Abbott's lack of experience in foreign affairs, seizing on his opponent's comments that Syria is "baddies versus baddies."

Rudd has called the Syria conflict "the world's greatest political crisis and unfolding humanitarian disaster" though he's not said whether a Labor government would back military intervention.

It's the economy...

The current prime minister has tried to win over voters with the promise of more jobs, painting Abbott's planned budget cuts as a sure way to send the economy into recession.

In a bid to emphasize his government's economic credentials, the prime minister seized upon the latest GDP figures released earlier this week showing an annual growth rate of 2.6%.

"As of this year, since we came to office in 2007, the Australian economy is 15% bigger than it was," Rudd said. "I draw to your attention the fact that the British economy has shrunk 3% over that time."

Under Abbott, the government would find billions of dollars in budget cuts, including slashing $4.5 billion (US$4.1 billion) from foreign aid over the next six years. Money saved would be spent on infrastructure projects including motorway upgrades, in a decision slammed by aid groups.

"We are a strong OECD country, yet we are fast becoming the least generous when it comes to reducing global poverty," said Norman Gillespie, the CEO of UNICEF Australia.

As of this year, since we came to office in 2007, the Australian economy is 15% bigger than it was.
Kevin Rudd, Australian prime minister

Paired with Abbott's budget cuts is a generous maternity plan pitched to female voters despite opposition from big business and from within his own party. Mothers would be given up to $75,000 (US$68,490) for six months' maternity leave at a total cost of $5.5 billion (US$5.01 billion) each year.

An end to infighting?

Away from the budget, Abbott has promised a "no surprises, no excuses government," a reference to the political divisions that have split the Labor Party in recent years.

Abbott has had a powerful ally in his bid for election. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has made no secret of wanting the Labor government out.

On May 19, when Gillard was still in power, Murdoch tweeted: "Oz polls show nothing can save this miserable govt. Election can not come soon enough. People decided and tuned out months ago."

Rudd has accused Murdoch-owned newspapers of attacking Labor for the magnate's own commercial gain. After Rudd announced the election date, the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph ran the headline: "KICK THIS MOB OUT." In another edition, the Labor leader was shown on the front cover of a tabloid newspaper wearing a Nazi uniform.

Commentators say Murdoch's Foxtel network would face greater competition from Labor's plans to roll out a faster National Broadband Network.

Other key issues, alternatives

Aside from business, the two main candidates are separated by their views on same-sex marriage. Rudd is firmly for it, Abbott, a former Catholic seminarian, insists that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

However they're much closer on the issue of asylum seekers. Both main parties advocate sending people who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers where most, if not all, will be potentially resettled if found to be refugees.

READ MORE: Australian parties in 'race to bottom' on asylum

There are other options for Australian voters. The Greens Party is the strongest of a number of smaller parties outside the two top. And then there are the newer upstarts; groups fronted by recognizable names who are vying for a Senate seat.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is conducting a long-distance election campaign from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he's been holed-up for fear of arrest and extradition. However, in recent weeks, his new WikiLeaks Party has been hit by a number of resignations, weakening its stance.

And Clive Palmer, the mining magnate perhaps best known outside Australia for his plans to build a replica of the Titanic, is also seeking votes for a place in the Senate on behalf of his Palmer United Party.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. Saturday (6 p.m. ET Friday) and they should close at 6 p.m. local time, with the results are expected soon after.

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