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Howard triumphs in Australia

By CNN's Grant Holloway

Special report:  Australia votes
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Australia returns John Howard to power for a fourth time.

CNN's Mike Chinoy looks at the two leading candidates.
Sydney (Australia)
John Howard
Mark Latham

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard is set to become the nation's second-longest serving leader in December this year after securing a stunning fourth election victory Saturday night.

Howard's conservative coalition government is on track to be returned with an increased majority of seats in the controlling lower house of parliament and may well have won a majority in the upper house Senate.

Indications Sunday suggest the coalition may control the 76-seat Senate assuming its wins the support of the conservative Christian Family First party which is set to gain its first upper house seat.

Winning control in the Senate would give Howard the freedom to push through previously contentious reforms.

These include the sale of the government's controlling stake in the national telecommunications carrier, Telstra, and key industrial relations changes.

Voters comprehensively dismissed the challenge of 43-year-old Mark Latham's Labor Party, opting to stick firm with the bland, but vastly experienced Howard.

In particular, key "mortgage belt" seats in the cities of Sydney and Brisbane stayed with Howard -- evidence a scare campaign run by Howard suggesting Labor would raise interest rates was effective.

A reluctance to change goverments during a time of unprecedented economic prosperity in Australia was also a key factor.

That caution cleary outweighed some of Howard's less popular decisions, such as committing Australian troops to the invasion of Iraq.

"This nation stands on the threshold of a new era of great achievement ... a nation which can achieve anything it wants, if its sets its mind to it," a beaming Howard told supporters in Sydney.

"I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition," he added.

Main Opposition leader Mark Latham had earlier conceded defeat. "A short time ago I spoke to Mr. Howard and I congratulated him and his family," Latham said.

"Tonight is not our night."

"We made a decision to run a positive campaign. We wanted to support opportunity for the Australian people and we will continue to advance our beliefs and our policies to the parliament in the coming three years," he said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation forecasts put the government's projected majority as high as 87 seats the 150-seat governing House of Representatives, with Labor likely to drop back four to 60.

The Howard triumph may give some comfort to fellow "coalition of the willing" allies, George W. Bush and Britain's Tony Blair, both facing imminent election -- Bush on November 2 and Blair possibly in May next year.

In Australia, Iraq has by no means been a key election issue -- despite a major clash of policies on the issue.

Howard has been a steadfast supporter of the U.S. action Iraq and committed 2,000 troops to the invasion.

Latham had been opposed to Australia's involvement in Iraq and had vowed to bring the remaining 900 troops base in Iraq home by the end of the year if he won government.

But this election has not been fought on the Iraq issue, mainly because Australia's commitment has been largely symbolic and no casualties have been recorded.

While a majority of Australians may be opposed to involvement in the war, it has not proven to be a strong enough issue to change voting patterns.

The Howard campaign focussed strongly on its economic record, having presided over years of prosperity in Australia.

Equally, the government has hammered a simple message: That interest rates would go up under a Labor administration.

The campaign also hinged on personalities, with Howard seen as a colorless but a reliable steward of the economy, and Latham perceived as young and energetic, but also inexperienced and sometimes undisciplined.

The victorious Howard is now expected to hand over the prime ministership to his long-serving Treasurer Peter Costello some time before the next election.

For Latham, a loss will not likely be the end of his political career.

At just 43 and having led Labor for less than a year, it is expected he would remain as opposition leader, set to do it all again in 2007.

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