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Leadership challenge to Australian prime minister evaporates

Prime minister forced to open her job to challengers only to find that no one from her party was willing to run against her.

CANBERRA // Australia's deeply unpopular government further damaged its public image today with a bizarre internal power struggle in which the prime minister was forced to open her job to challengers only to find that no one from her party was willing to run against her.

The unprecedented spectacle of a leadership ballot without a challenger adds to the perception of dysfunction and turmoil that taints Prime Minister Julia Gillard's party and is likely to harm its already dismal chance of holding on to power at national elections in September.

Kevin Rudd, the prime minister whom Gillard ousted in an internal party coup in 2010, had been expected to attempt to replace her. For weeks, his backers had been frenetically recruiting Gillard loyalists who are becoming increasing spooked by the centre-left Labor Party's dismal performance in opinion polls this year.

But Mr Rudd made a surprising 11th-hour announcement that he would not attempt to return to the premiership by running for the party's top job, a likely sign that he was not certain he could unseat Ms Gillard despite her unpopularity.

Following the vote, Ms Gillard declared that "the leadership of our political party, the Labor Party, has been settled and settled in the most conclusive fashion possible".

Senior minister Simon Crean brought the leadership unrest to a head earlier yesterday by calling on his government colleagues to sign a petition to force a leadership vote if Ms Gillard refused to call one. Such a petition would have needed the signatures of one-third of government legislators.

Mr Crean - a former Labor leader who served in Ms Gillard's government as minister for the arts, regional Australia, regional development and local government - said he wanted to be deputy leader and called on Mr Rudd to challenge for the top post.

Ms Gillard removed Mr Crean from her Cabinet before the meeting.

Junior minister Richard Marles, who publically backed Mr Rudd, resigned late yesterday from his portfolios of foreign and Pacific Island affairs.

Part of Mr Rudd's appeal is opinion polls that show he would be a far more popular among the public than Ms Gillard. But several of his colleagues complain that he is chaotic, dysfunctional and abusive to work with.

He led Labor to victory at elections in 2007 before being deposed three years later in the internal coup. He challenged Ms Gillard last year and was roundly defeated in a ballot of Labor legislators.

A change of leader could have brought down Labor's fragile minority government. A key independent legislator upon whom the party relies to command a majority in the House of Representatives had warned that he might not support a government led by Mr Rudd.

The ballot ended a tumultuous week for the government in which it was forced by lack of support to withdraw bills that that would have increased media regulation.

Starting today, parliament will take a seven-week break before the deputy prime minister and treasurer Wayne Swan outlines his budget plans for the next fiscal year on May 14.

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