SYDNEY/CANBERRA Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott swept into office in a landslide election on Saturday as voters punished the outgoing Labor government for six years of turbulent rule and for failing to maximise the benefits of a now fading mining boom.
Abbott, a former boxer, Rhodes scholar and trainee priest, promised to restore political stability, cut taxes and crack down on asylum seekers arriving by boat.
But it was frustration with Labor's leadership turmoil that cost the government dearly at the polls.
Labor dumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, for Australia's first female prime minister Julia Gillard, only to reinstate Rudd as leader in June 2013 in a desperate bid to stay in power.
"This was an election that was lost by the government more than one that was won by the opposition," former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke told Sky News.
Election officials said with about 65 percent of the vote counted, Abbott's Liberal-National Party coalition had won around 54 percent of the national vote, and projected it would win at least 77 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
Party analysts said Abbott would end up with a majority of around 40 seats, ending the country's first minority government since World War Two. Labor had relied upon independent and Greens support for the past three years.
The election was been pitched as a choice on who is best to lead the A$1.5 trillion ($1.4 trillion) economy as it adjusts to an end to a prolonged mining investment boom, fuelled by China's demand for its abundant natural resources.
REFUGEES, CARBON TAX
Abbott built up a strong opinion poll lead on the back of promises to rein in government spending, scrap an unpopular tax on carbon emissions, and stop the flow of refugee boats arriving in Australia's northwest.
His campaign had support from media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his Australian newspapers, which have urged voters to reject Rudd's Labor government. Australia's other major newspaper group Fairfax also called for a change of government, saying
"They (voters) wanted stability. What Tony Abbott did was put up a unified team. It was the accumulative effect of six years (of Labor disunity) that played into the idea it was time for change," said Labor candidate Peter Beattie.
Rudd had painted Abbott's planned spending cuts as dangerous European-style austerity and said his government was best placed to manage an economy that is slowing but remains the envy of much of the developed world.
A record 1,717 candidates contested the election, including colourful mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Palmer's start-up Palmer United Party was a big winner from the election, polling around 10 percent of the vote in some areas. Palmer was in strong contention to win his Queensland seat and his party might also win a seat in the upper house Senate.
While the exit polls point to an easy Abbott victory, much of the interest remains on the Senate, where the Greens, independents and fringe parties might still hold the balance of power and frustrate Abbott's legislative agenda.
Final results in the Senate could take more than a week to determine, due to the complicated system of preferential voting and proportional representation.
Abbott, a fitness fanatic often photographed in his swimming costume at his local beach, voted early at a Sydney surf club on Saturday, accompanied by his wife and daughters.
But he spent election night in a private suite of a plush Sydney hotel, with his family and close supporters, including his political mentor and former prime minister John Howard. He had yet to declare victory.
Rudd spent election night at a sports stadium in his home town of Brisbane and had yet to comment on the election.
(Additional reporting by Michael Sin and Thuy Ong in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Michael Perry)