Australia's prime minister weakened after surviving party challenge to his leadership



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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Abbott emerged politically wounded after withstanding a leadership challenge from within his own party Monday, with many analysts doubting he can survive to lead his conservative government to next year's elections.

The polarizing leader's grip on power has slipped since last month when he drew widespread criticism for making Queen Elizabeth II's 93-year-old husband, Prince Philip, an Australian knight on Australia's national day. Many saw it as an insult to worthy Australians.

Abbott, in office less than a year-and-a-half, survived a move by disgruntled Liberal Party members calling for a secret ballot to decide who would be prime minister. They voted 61-39 to reject the motion.

Experts say Abbott needed a stronger show of support from his colleagues to ward off potential future challenges if the government continues to endure sagging approval ratings. He would not survive another blunder, said Chris Kenny, a political commentator and former conservative government staffer.

"He's one dumb knighthood away from oblivion," Kenny told Sky News television.

Abbott described the vote as a political near-death experience, and promised government colleagues he would lead a more consultative and collegial administration.

"This has been a very chastening experience, a very chastening experience," Abbott told reporters." It's not often that something like this happens 16 or 17 months into the life of a government."

He would not confirm or deny reports that he had asked his colleagues for six more months to lift his coalition's opinion polling.

The vote occurred before Parliament convened Monday for the first time this year. The opposition center-left Labor Party used it to attack Abbott's leadership, reminding him of his words in 2012 when the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard fended off her rival Kevin Rudd in a similar ballot of lawmakers 71-31.

At that time, Abbott questioned whether she had a mandate to continue ruling when a third of her parliamentary colleagues "expressed their lack of confidence in her today."

Abbott's government has seen its approval ratings slide since last May, when the government's first annual budget was widely criticized as being toughest on the poor and most vulnerable.

Norman Abjorensen, an Australian National University political scientist, described the likelihood of Abbott surviving as prime minister until the next election as "fairly slim."

The revolt by more than a third of the 102 Liberal lawmakers would ensure that the public focused on his leadership rather than his government's policy messages, Abjorensen said.

"He's been badly wounded, probably mortally wounded," he said. "Today has made him really a political corpse waiting to be cut down."

But Nick Economou, a Monash University political science professor, believed Abbott could potentially turn his government's fortunes around in six months, saying people tend to underestimate him.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who led the party in opposition until he lost by a single vote to the more conservative Abbott in a 2009 leadership ballot, has been touted as the favorite to replace the prime minister if there is another challenge.

After Monday's party vote, online betting agency sportsbet.com.au continued to rate Turnbull as the favorite to lead the government to the 2016 election.

Monday's challenge came halfway through Abbott's first 3-year term as prime minister. His party has never dumped a first-term prime minister.

An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper Monday showed that Abbott's popularity had reached its lowest point in his five years as party leader, with only 24 percent of respondents satisfied with his performance while 68 percent were dissatisfied.

The poll was based on a nationwide random telephone survey over the weekend of 1,178 voters. It had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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