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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Australia's Howard Ups Majority

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard's government was sitting on a predicted 10-seat-stronger majority Sunday after a stunning comeback built on his tough stance against refugees and support for the war on terrorism.

With 80 percent of the vote counted, Howard's conservative Liberal-National Party coalition gained a 2-percentage-point swing in voter support to 51.14 percent. That is expected to deliver 80 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, where the majority party forms government. The Labor Party is expected to win 67 seats, and independent candidates will hold three.

"Clearly Howard has played this superbly," said political analyst Malcolm MacGregor. "He deserves credit for clawing back from a shocking political position at the turn of the year. It has been a prodigious political achievement."

Howard played down Sunday the significance of the asylum-seeker issue in his third-term win. Economic management was the underlying issue that enabled the government to hold crucial outer-city suburban seats, he said.

"The government was clearly in a lot of political difficulty seven or eight months ago, and we began to address those concerns," he told reporters.

Labor leader Kim Beazley said Saturday he would step down, opening the way for deputy leader and finance spokesman Simon Crean, who said Sunday he will run for the leadership.

"I'll be putting my name forward and hope to become the next Labor leader," Crean said Sunday, adding he was not aware if there will be other contenders or when the party vote would be called.

Howard made his staunch support for the fight against terrorism and his tough stance against asylum seekers the central planks in his campaign.

After lagging in opinion polls all year, Howard's popularity surged in late August when he vowed that 433 mostly Afghan asylum seekers rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by a Norwegian freighter would never set foot on Australian soil.

Navy ships now patrol the ocean border with Indonesia, turning back refugee boats or picking up those who defy the warnings and shipping them to detention camps built by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, two impoverished Pacific island nations.

Howard has been widely criticized as exploiting race issues with his refugee policy, even by former leaders of his party, but polls show more than 70 percent of Australians support the policy, a fact that led Labor to back it as well.

Howard's immigration stance undercut the right-wing One Nation Party and its leader Pauline Hanson, who made headlines in the late 1990s by advocating a ban on Asian immigration. One Nation won no lower house seats as supporters flocked to the government, halving the right-wing party's vote from the previous election.

One Nation national director Frank Hough said if, as expected, Hanson's bid for a Senate seat was doomed, she would likely quit her party. "I think this will be the final kick in the stomach for her," Hough said.

Labor's decision to back Howard's immigration policy led many left-wing supporters to vote for the Green Party, which opposes turning away asylum seekers and doubled its vote.