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Howard Triumphs in Australia

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia has returned incumbent Prime Minister John Howard for a fourth consecutive term of government, probably with an increased majority in the Parliament.

At a rally for his supporters at a Sydney hotel on Saturday, Howard claimed victory.

"I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition," he said.

Main Opposition leader Mark Latham had earlier conceded defeat. "A short time ago I spoke to Mr. Howard and I congratulated him and his family," Latham said.

"Tonight is not our night."

The coalition looks set to win at least 80 seats in the 150 seat governing House of Representatives.

The victory is a sweeping endorsement for Howard's conservative coalition government.

A Howard triumph may give some comfort to fellow "coalition of the willing" allies, George W. Bush and Britain's Tony Blair, both facing imminent election -- Bush on November 2 and Blair possibly in May next year.

In Australia, Iraq has by no means been a key election issue -- despite a major clash of policies on the issue.

Howard has been a steadfast supporter of the U.S. action Iraq and committed 2,000 troops to the invasion.

Latham had been opposed to Australia's involvement in Iraq and had vowed to bring the remaining 900 troops base in Iraq home by the end of the year if he won government.

But this election has not been fought on the Iraq issue, mainly because Australia's commitment has been largely symbolic and no casualties have been recorded.

While a majority of Australians may be opposed to involvement in the war, it has not proven to be a strong enough issue to change voting patterns.

The Howard campaign has focussed strongly on its economic record, having presided over years of prosperity in Australia.

Equally, the government has hammered a simple message: That interest rates would go up under a Labor administration.

Those tactics have clearly paid off.

The campaign also hinged on personalities, with Howard seen as a colorless but a reliable steward of the economy, and Latham perceived as young and energetic, but also inexperienced and sometimes undisciplined.

The victorious Howard is expected to hand over the prime ministership to his long-serving Treasurer Peter Costello some time before the next election.

For Latham, a loss will not likely be the end of his political career.

At just 43 and having led Labor for less than a year, it is expected he would remain as opposition leader, set to do it all again in 2007.


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