First 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.

Polling booths will not start closing until 6 pm (1230 IST), but the Sky television exit poll of 31 marginal government seats forecast a 30-seat gain for Labor leader Kevin Rudd, more than enough for him to form a government.

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

''Its very likely that Labor has won this election.

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

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 Bennelong since entering parliament in 1974, was likely to lose his own seat.

If Howard has lost Bennelong he will be the first prime minister to suffer the indignity 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.

REUTERS SKB VC1252

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