CANBERRA (Reuters) - An Australian commando was killed by the Taliban militia in Afghanistan on Friday, on the eve of elections at which staunch U.S. ally Prime Minister John Howard will battle for survival after 11 years in power.
The third death of an Australian soldier in recent weeks in Afghanistan comes as Australians, who will vote on Saturday, tire of Howard’s security stance in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Australia was one of the first nations to commit troops in late 2001 to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and later Iraq. Australia has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq and almost 1,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Howard is committed to keeping troops in both countries, but opposition Labor leader Kevin Rudd has described the Iraq war a disaster and pledged to withdraw combat forces from Iraq, but keep frontline forces in Afghanistan’s troubled south alongside Dutch troops.
Rudd, 50, leads Howard in opinion polls, some predicting a landslide victory for Labor on Saturday, and the latest casualty will only add to public unease over Australia’s role in the U.S.-led war on terror.
“To all of my fellow Australians can I just say again, this conflict in Afghanistan is difficult, it’s dangerous, but it’s necessary in order to defeat terrorism,” Howard said after the military announcement of the soldier’s death.
“It is a just cause and Australia will continue to participate in a very strong and effective way,” he said.
Rudd has built a strong lead in the polls with his campaign for a new generation of leadership, promising to sign the Kyoto climate pact and bring home frontline troops from Iraq.
Some of Australia’s major newspapers called on Friday for voters to dump Howard and two opinion polls predicted a victory for Labor, but with widely differing margins.
“Rudd right man for new times,” said the editorial in Rupert Murdoch’s Sydney Daily Telegraph. “We now believe Mr Howard has reached his use-by date, if for no other reason than he almost believes it himself,” the influential tabloid said.
An AC Nielsen poll on Friday gave Labor a 14-point lead on preferences, which would see Howard swept from office. But the closely-watched Newspoll to be published on election day put support for the conservatives at 48 percent against 52 percent for Labor, which puts Howard within range of victory.
Howard has campaigned on his economic credentials, with the Australian economy recording 17 years of growth and record low unemployment. He warns a future Labor government would be dominated by former trade unionists and would wreck the economy.
In a last pitch to voters, Howard warned on Friday that Australia would fundamentally change if his government is dumped.
“If you believe that our country is fundamentally heading in the right direction you should not vote for a change of government,” Howard said at his final news conference.
“Because if you change the government, you will change the fundamental direction of this country. It always happens.”
Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has promised an education revolution and to overturn controversial labor laws championed by Howard. A Labor win would also see Rudd forge closer ties with China.
Labor needs to win 16 more seats to win office. Bookmakers have also priced in a Labor win, with a Rudd victory paying A$1.20 for a $1.00 bet, compared to A$4.60 for a Howard victory.
Howard also spent his final day of the campaign distancing himself from fake anti-Muslim leaflets distributed by his supporters in a key Sydney seat.
The leaflets could damage the government’s chances of re-election, even in Howard’s own seat where migrant voters fear his government harbors xenophobic beliefs underpinning a tough anti-boatpeople policy, which detains illegal arrivals.
“I knew nothing about it. It angered me,” Howard said on Friday, referring to the leaflets. “It’s no way representative of my views or that of people in the Liberal Party,” he said.
Whatever happens on Saturday, the election will be Howard’s last. Howard, 68, has promised to retire and hand power to his deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, in about two years.
Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Tarrant