Australian PM: Government could be 'annihilated' at elections this year

Australian Prime Minister John Howard vowed Wednesday to lead his conservative government to elections this year against a surging opposition, while admitting opinion polls suggest his government will be "annihilated."

Analysts said Howard's unusual admission that the government faced electoral oblivion was a strategic play with the dual goals of steeling his allies for a tough fight ahead and spooking voters who may be considering switching sides.

The second-longest serving prime minister in Australia's 106-year history, has shrugged off criticisms that - like his British counterpart Tony Blair - he has outlasted his welcome among voters.

He has also ruled out handing power to his more youthful deputy in the ruling Liberal Party, Peter Costello, to lift his 11-year-old government's popularity before elections expected in October or November.

"I have no desire to do anything other than remain prime minister of my country and leader of my party for as long as the Australian people want that to be the case," Howard, 67, told Sky News television.

Suffering months of the worst opinion poll ratings since taking power, Howard told a meeting of lawmakers Tuesday the figures "suggest we would not just lose, but be annihilated."

He also said he could be part of the problem, describing his political longevity as both a strength and a weakness.

Howard came to power in 1996, more than a year before Blair's landslide victory in Britain. Blair, a close political ally of Howard through their mutual support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, is stepping down in June.

Polls show the Iraq conflict is deeply unpopular with Australians. Despite this, Howard won the last election in late 2004 by campaigning on his government's management of an economy that is booming.

Costello, 49, publicly accused Howard last year of reneging on a secret promise to retire years earlier. The prime minister denied any such agreement.

Howard announced last July he had the support of most coalition lawmakers and would run for a fifth term as prime minister. Costello, accepting he lacked support, said he would not challenge.

The Labor opposition, in disarray for years until current leader Kevin Rudd took over last December, has surged ahead of the government in opinion polls this year. Analysts say Rudd appears fresher and more vibrant than the staid Howard.

Observers said Howard's strong rhetoric had the dual goals of preparing his allies for a tough fight and trying to unsettle voters who are thinking about switching sides.

"In a calculated move to shake up the political landscape, Howard warned his colleagues he had no rabbits in his hat and told the public it couldn't flirt with Labor and not expect change," The Australian newspaper's political editor Dennis Shannahan wrote in comments mirrored by other observers.

Howard said Wednesday he did not regret holding on to power despite the lagging polls.