SYDNEY // Kevin Rudd's resignation yesterday as Australia's foreign minister paves the way for a leadership challenge that could spell the early demise of the Labor minority government.
The dramatic move by the former prime minister, who called a late-night news conference in Washington, followed months of rumours that Mr Rudd was marshalling support to win back his old job. He was ousted by Julia Gillard in the middle of 2010.
Analysts said a leadership ballot could be held as early as next week.
Whatever happens in the coming days, and half a dozen scenarios were being bandied about yesterday, the future looks ominous for the Labor government, which has a majority of just one seat, and is reliant on the support of independent and Greens MPs.
Mr Rudd, in the US for a G20 summit of foreign ministers, said he felt he no longer had Ms Gillard's support. He said he would return home to discuss his political future with his family and colleagues. However, many doubt he has enough support within the parliamentary Labor party, which elects the leader.
Ms Gillard could call a ballot herself, in the hope of cementing her position.
She said she was "disappointed" that Mr Rudd had not given her notice of his resignation.
If Ms Gillard defeats Mr Rudd, she will continue to lead a government that has plumbed new depths of unpopularity and faces defeat at an election due by late 2013. But, as a back bencher, he could cause so much discord that she might have to call an early election.
If Mr Rudd triumphs, on the other hand, he cannot rely on the automatic support of the independents and Greens.
The "soap opera", as Mr Rudd called it, rather disingenuously, since his backers have been sowing dissent for months, seems unlikely to enhance Australia's image internationally. The country punches above its weight diplomatically.
Mr Rudd, for instance, is credited with a key role in hardening Nato resolve for military action in Libya.
Foreign policy, including keeping an Australian military force in Afghanistan, would almost certainly remain the same under a new Labor leader. In fact, few policy changes are expected whatever happens in the days and weeks to come.
"This isn't about policy," said Norman Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University (ANU). "It's all about electoral appeal, opinion polls, personality and tactics."
It was Mr Rudd's poor standing in the polls that precipitated the challenge by Ms Gillard, his deputy. Now his approval ratings are far better than hers. Initially pleased to have their first female prime minister, many Australians now believe she is not up to the job. She has also suffered from lingering resentment at the ruthless way she got rid of Mr Rudd.
That, says John Wanna, another ANU political expert, is another reason why a second "spill" - as Australians call their leadership contests - may not be a good idea.
"Even those [Labor figures] who now think it was a mistake to knife Rudd don't necessarily think another stabbing will help them," he said.
While he may be more popular than Ms Gillard, many of Mr Rudd's colleagues detest him.
As prime minister, he was said to be a workaholic and control freak who failed to consult, made impossible demands of his staff and had a vicious temper.
A video leaked to YouTube last weekend, showing him swearing profusely while trying to record a speech in Mandarin, seemed designed to remind people of those character traits.
Ms Gillard made Mr Rudd foreign minister in a reconciliatory gesture, or perhaps following the maxim about keeping your enemies close. He is generally thought to have done a good job, and is said to be liked by world leaders including Barack Obama, the US president.
Ms Gillard, by contrast, has never disguised the fact that she has little interest in foreign policy.
Given that Labor won a landslide election victory under Mr Rudd three years ago, ending more than a decade of conservative government, the current state of affairs might seem astonishing.
David Burchell, a political expert at the University of Western Sydney, said: "You've got a government on the rocks and a political party on the brink of imploding."