Australian PM may lose his seat in tough election

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SYDNEY, Oct 23 (Reuters) Australian leader John Howard risks becoming the first prime minister to lose his own seat at an election in 78 years, as he battles to save his conservative government from defeat in next month's poll.

Electoral boundary changes to his safe Sydney seat of Bennelong have made it marginal, with a swing of around 4 percent -- or about 3,000 votes -- enough to defeat him.

An increase in Asian migrants to the area, with Chinese and Koreans now representing 20 percent of voters, is also seen as working against Howard, 68, who is seeking a fifth term in office in the national election on November. 24.

''When he is in an election he has used the race card and we (do) not need that sort of leadership,'' said Jason Koh, editor of the local Korean newspaper Hoju Donja.

Koh said many Chinese and Korean voters believed Howard had played the ''race card'' with his tough stance against boatpeople, a tactic that helped him win the last election in 2004.

Unlike previous elections, the opposition Labor party has chosen a high-profile candidate, former television and news magazine journalist Maxine McKew, to challenge Howard in the harbourside seat he has held since entering parliament in 1974.

McKew, who only moved into the electorate a few months ago, leads Howard in opinion polls and with betting agencies.

Aware he is fighting for political survival in his own backyard, Howard has repeatedly reminded his constituency that he does not take Bennelong voters for granted.

He has also altered his electioneering tactics and is spending a lot more time in Bennelong, say local residents, pressing the flesh on weekends and attending community events.

ROWDY RALLY Last Saturday's Granny Smith Apple Festival, normally a subdued community fair, turned into a rowdy election rally when Howard and McKew turned up. Brandishing placards and balloons, hundreds of supporters of both candidates waged a vocal battle.

John Booth, editor of the community newspaper The Weekly Times, said it was the first time in 21 years that Howard had attended the festival.

''He is opening things he has not done for years. He realises he is in a real fight,'' said Booth, who believes Howard will lose his seat. ''The people I speak to, people who say they voted for him last time, say it is time for a change.'' Bennelong is named after one of the most notable Aborigines in Australian history, who was taken to England in 1792, and covers some of Sydney's more affluent, leafy northern suburbs.

When Howard first won the seat it was a conservative, middle class electorate, but over the years it has changed in nature, expanding west to incorporate more working class Labor suburbs.

The issues resonating in Bennelong are similar to those on the national campaign -- economic management, the Iraq war, climate change and new work place laws.

But where Bennelong differs is with its Asian-Australian voters, some 12,000 Chinese and 5,000 Koreans. Immigration and Australia-Asia relations are important issues in the seat, where half the residents were either born overseas or their parents were.

Bennelong's Asian voters remember 1988 anti-immigration comments by Howard when he was in opposition and his government's wooing of supporters of anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson at the 2001 election, said Koh.

''Mr Howard has a long history of divide and rule ... and many people are suspicious,'' he said.

In contrast, Booth said Labor has promoted its Asian credentials, wheeling out a former state politician and his Asian wife and leader Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat.

Rudd's ability to conduct a fluent discussion with Chinese President Hu Jintao at a recent Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney apparently won him many fans in the city's Asian communities.

''The Korean and Chinese vote is big enough to decide who wins, John Howard or Maxine McKew,'' said Koh.

REUTERS ARB RK1250

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