Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott voted at a Sydney surf club on Saturday, exuding confidence as polls pointed to a landslide election win over Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and an end to six years of troubled Labour rule.
Abbott, a fitness fanatic often photographed in his swimming costume at his local beach, wore a suit to cast his ballot, accompanied by his wife and daughters and dozens of cheering well-wishers, some clad only in surf shorts.
"I sort of wish I was out there on the waves. It's a nice wave for an elderly long boarder this morning," Abbott quipped, adding he did not trust polls pointing to an easy conservative victory ending the first minority government in decades.
But an early media exit poll, with still an hour of voting in major eastern states, predicted Abbott's Liberal-National Party coalition would win 53% of the national vote, compared to 47% for Rudd's Labour.
That would give Abbott a majority of more than 20 seats in the 150-seat parliament and end the country's first minority government since World War II.
Ruling Labour has faced a monumental task to win back voters who had abandoned it in droves over policy bungles and a bitterly fought leadership battle. It dumped Rudd in 2010, for Australia's first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, only to reinstate him as leader in June 2013 in a desperate bid to stay in power.
Both Rudd and Abbott were jostled by demonstrators on Saturday, with Abbott at one point rushed away by bodyguards after being threatened at a Sydney seat held by Labour.
Rudd's vote in his hometown of Brisbane in sub-tropical Queensland was disrupted by protests against tough new laws on asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, a hot issue particularly in Labour's blue-collar suburban heartland.
Along with refugees, the election has been pitched as a choice on who is best to lead the resource-rich nation as it adjusts to an end to a prolonged mining investment boom, fuelled by China's demand for natural resources.
Abbott has promised to restore government stability after three years of a hung parliament, with Labour relying on the support of the Greens and independent MPs. He has built up a strong opinion poll lead on the back of promises to rein in government spending, scrap an unpopular tax on carbon emissions, and stop the flow of refugee boats arriving in Australia's northwest.
His campaign has had support from media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his Australian newspapers, which have urged voters to reject the Labour government. Australia's other major newspaper group Fairfax also called for a change of government.
A record 1,717 candidates are contesting the election, including colourful mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
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