CANBERRA // Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, threw open her job to a party leadership ballot today and the man she ousted three years ago stepped up to challenge her, saying their party will face a "catastrophic defeat" without a change at the top.
Ms Gillard made the move in response to reports that Kevin Rudd's supporters were pushing for a challenge, in hopes of avoiding what opinion polls suggest will be a massive defeat for the ruling Labor Party in elections set for September.
Ms Gillard said there will be a ballot of Labor lawmakers at 7pm Canberra time (1pm UAE), in a closed-door meeting.
Mr Rudd accepted the challenge to regain the job that he lost to Gillard in 2010. He previously had ruled out such a challenge unless he was assured of the overwhelming support of his colleagues.
"The truth is many, many MPs have requested me for a long time to contest the leadership of the party because of the parlous circumstances we now face," Mr Rudd said.
"We are on course for a catastrophic defeat unless there is change. And so today, I am saying to you, to the people of Australia, I'm seeking to respond to your call that I've heard from so many of you to do what I can" to prevent opposition leader Tony Abbott from becoming prime minister.
Mr Rudd's supporters are desperate to have a ballot before Parliament rises for the last time tomorrow ahead of elections set for September 14. Opinion polls suggest Labor could lose around half its 71 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, where parties form the government, but they also show that Mr Rudd would be a more popular leader than Ms Gillard.
A party power broker and influential Gillard ally, Bill Shorten, announced shortly before the ballot that he would back Mr Rudd.
"I have now come to the view that Labor stands the best chance to defend the legacies of this term of government and to continue improving the lives of millions of Australians if Kevin Rudd is our leader," Mr Shorten said.
Ms Gillard said she believed she would survive the vote: "I wouldn't be putting myself forward unless I had a degree of confidence about the support of my parliamentary colleagues."
She said whoever loses should quit Parliament at the election, and Mr Rudd agreed. Ms Gillard said it was not right to have a "person floating around as the potential alternative prime minister."
Mr Gillard's announcement followed media reports that a petition was circulating among the 102 Labor Party members. A special party meeting to discuss a leadership ballot would have been called if at least 34 MPs - 30 per cent - signed that petition, but her announcement eliminated that step.
A Rudd victory could trigger an earlier election if he cannot attract the level of support from independent members and from the minor Greens party that Ms Gillard managed.