Exit poll says Howard loses Australia election

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SYDNEY, Nov 24 (Reuters) - The first exit poll in Australia's elections predicted a landslide win for opposition Labor, with voters ousting the 11-year-old conservative government and possibly dumping Prime Minister John Howard from his own seat.

A Sky television exit poll of 31 marginal government seats forecast a 30-seat gain for the Labor leader Kevin Rudd. Labor needs to win an extra 16 seats to take office.

The exit poll of 2,787 voters by Auspoll gave Labor 53 per cent of the vote and the ruling Liberal party 47 percent.

''It's very likely that Labor has won this election.

Something in the order of 30-odd seats,'' said Auspoll's John Armitage.

Voting in Victoria and New South Wales, the nation's most populous states, ended at 6 pm (1230IST). The last polling stations will close in Western Australia at (1430IST).

Howard, 68, has trailed in opinion polls all year with some forecasting a landslide victory for Labor, but surveys in the final days of the campaign said the contest was neck-and-neck.

Auspoll said a sample of 950 voters in Howard's marginal Sydney electorate showed the veteran politician, who has held his seat since entering parliament in 1974, had been dumped.

If Howard has lost Bennelong he will be the first prime minister to lose his own seat in an election for 78 years.

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

Rudd has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol, further isolating Washington on both.

The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat would also be expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations.

STILL STUMPING Howard kept up his grassroots campaigning until the polls closed in Sydney in a desperate bid to win a fifth straight term and beat off the challenge of a younger opposition leader offering generational change.

''There are a lot of people who decide on the day, when they walk into the polling booth, how they are going to vote. That is why you have to keep arguing and fighting and campaigning to the very end,'' said Howard, greeting and shaking hands with voters.

Howard queued in drizzling rain to vote at a Sydney school, heckled by Labor supporters.

Flanked by his family, Howard told reporters he felt ''very fit, very positive'' and believed there had been a swing back to his government in the final days of the campaign.

In contrast, Rudd voted in humid sunshine at his local church in Brisbane in the tropical state of Queensland.

In almost presidential style, Rudd was swamped by well-wishers and friends as he walked past trendy cafes to vote, kissing his wife after placing his vote in the ballot box.

''I have to say there is a strong mood for change in Australia. People want new leadership with a positive plan for the future,'' Rudd told reporters.

LABOR BOOKMAKERS' FAVOURITE Betting punters rallied to back Howard to win his seat, but Labor is still a clear favourite with bookmakers to win the election. The government's odds blew out today, with a A bet returning A.70 if they win.

If Labor gains a big swing in the east, a result could be known at about (1330IST) but the result of a close poll might not be clear until (1630IST) when counting comes in from the west.

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

Rudd says Howard is too old and tired to lead Australia, and has attacked a handover to Costello as undemocratic.

Howard has criticised Rudd's lack of experience, insisting a Labor government would be dominated by former trade unionists and would wreck an economy which has recorded 17 years of growth.

Howard says that under his tenure Australia has become more secure and stable. Since the Sept. 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 elsewhere.

Polls show Australians are opposed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and are losing faith in Howard's tough security stance.

REUTERS SKB VC1336

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