Australians to vote on 11 yrs of conservative rule

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SYDNEY, Nov 24 (Reuters) Australians go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to end more than 11 years of conservative rule or give Prime Minister John Howard, who trails in opinion polls, one of his most stunning victories.

Howard is a staunch US ally and if re-elected has committed to keeping Australian troops in Iraq. He has offered voters 29 billion dollar in tax cuts, but few new policies.

In contrast opposition Labor leader Kevin Rudd has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, further isolating Washington on both. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat would also be expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations.

An Australian commando died fighting the Taliban today, the third soldier killed in recent months in Afghanistan.

Both Howard and Rudd will keep troops in Afghanistan, but opinion polls show Australians opposed to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and are losing faith in Howard's tough security stance, which has won him previous elections.

Howard has been written off by opinion polls throughout the six-week campaign, with some predicting a landslide win for Rudd, after only 11 months as party leader. But a Newspoll had both sides neck-and-neck with Labor slightly in front.

Howard risks becoming the first prime minister to lose his own seat at an election in 78 years, with boundary changes turning his blue-ribbon Sydney electorate, which he has held since entering parliament in 1974, into a marginal seat.

ASIAN VOTERS Many Asian voters in his electorate believe Howard is anti-immigration, due to his tough stance against boat people.

An anti-Muslim leaflet distributed by his party in the closing days of the campaign may reinforce their belief.

Labor needs to win an extra 16 seats to take office and both Howard and Rudd say the election will be very close, possibly decided in a handful of marginal seats.

Howard once described himself as ''Lazarus with a triple bypass'' for his ability to be resurrected from political defeat, but even if he wins a fifth term it will be his last hurrah, having promised to step down mid-term for his treasurer, Peter Costello.

Rudd, 50, is offering voters a generational change, saying that 68-year-old Howard is too old and tired to lead Australia.

''I offer Australia new leadership for the future, a positive plan for the future because Mr Howard's government's best days now lay behind it,'' Rudd said today. ''Mr Howard has gone stale in his government's approach to the future.'' In contrast Howard has attacked Rudd's lack of experience, insisting that a Labor government dominated by former trade unionists would wreck the economy, which has recorded 17 years of growth and record unemployment.

Rudd has vowed to overturn new labor laws introduced by Howard, arguing that they have eroded workers' rights and that many workers are being left behind as Australia enjoys a commodities-driven boom. Howard says Labor would return power to trade unions, which have been losing membership over the past decade.

Howard says that under his tenure, dominated by security and the economy, Australia has become a more secure and stable place.

''This is a stronger, prouder, more prosperous country than 11 and a half years ago and it is fundamentally going in the right direction,'' Howard said today.

''If you believe that our country is fundamentally heading in the right direction, you should not vote for a change of government,'' he said at his last news conference.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Australia has been on medium security alert. Australia's military in 2006 was at its highest operational level since the Vietnam War, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and other nations.

Reuters TB VP0108

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