SYDNEY, Australia — The nation's voters chose on Saturday to retain Prime Minister Paul Keating's Labor Party government despite the worst recession in 60 years.
It was the fifth straight national victory for Labor, which has held power for a decade.
Opposition leader John Hewson, a former economics professor whose populist campaign style was compared to President Clinton's, led in public opinion polls with his Liberal-National coalition when the five-week campaign began.
Australia is racked by near-record 11.1% unemployment. But Keating chipped away at the opposition by lambasting its controversial economic reform plan to impose a 15% tax on most goods and services and by saying that Hewson's conservative economic policies were akin to Reaganism and Thatcherism.
With 80% of the vote counted, the Australian Brodcasting Corp. predicted Labor would increase its seven-seat majority in the 147-member House of Representatives to 11. The vote breakdown was not immediately available.
Under Australia's system, the party with a House majority leads the government for three years and chooses the prime minister.
"This is the sweetest victory of all," Keating told hundreds of cheering supporters in his home constituency outside Sydney. "This is very much a victory of Australian values."
Hewson conceded defeat about 15 minutes later, saying, "The probability is that the government will win."
Opposition officials said the opposition coalition had clinched 65 House seats, with 15 or 16 constituencies still up for grabs.
Counting for undecided House seats plus 40 in the 76-member Senate will continue today. Neither of the main parties was expected to dominate the Senate.
In addition to attacking Hewson's tax proposal, Keating also criticized opposition plans to limit government-sponsored health care and dismantle pro-union labor laws.
Keating, 49, became prime minister in late 1991 after the party ousted his predecessor, Bob Hawke, who had won four consecutive elections.
Keating used his victory speech to pledge support to more than 1 million unemployed workers and promised that economic recovery will come soon.