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Behind the scenes of Australia's political 'soap opera'

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 8:06 PM EST, Thu February 23, 2012
On Monday, members of Australia's Labor Party will be asked to choose between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
On Monday, members of Australia's Labor Party will be asked to choose between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gillard seeking to end internal wrangling with vote on Monday
  • Foreign minister Rudd quit post unexpectedly on Wednesday
  • Rudd was PM before being ousted by Gillard in June 2010
  • Polls show Labor would lose an election if it was held right now

(CNN) -- In announcing his resignation as Foreign Minister Wednesday, Kevin Rudd referred to the "soap opera" underway in Australian politics.

He said he wanted no part of it, but continues to be a leading player in the drama unfolding in the corridors of Canberra, the home of Australia's Parliament House.

In an attempt to quash leadership speculation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has scheduled a showdown for Monday morning to determine who has enough support to lead the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the country.

The Players

Julia Gillard was deputy Prime Minister before she ousted Rudd from the top job to become Prime Minister in June 2010.

Originally from Wales, the trained lawyer said she made the move because "I came to the view that the government was losing its way."

Australia PM calls for leadership vote
Why Rudd resigned as Australian FM
Gillard on becoming prime minister

Within months of becoming Prime Minister, Gillard fought a fierce election battle with the opposition Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott. The August 2010 vote produced Australia's first hung parliament since 1940.

After days of intense jockeying for the support of independent candidates and the Australian Greens, Gillard announced she had enough backing to form a minority government. She appointed Rudd to the role of Foreign Minister, the position from which he resigned while on a work trip to Washington in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Kevin Rudd unseated Australia's second longest-serving Prime Minister, John Howard, in 2007 in a federal election that put the Labor Party in power for the first time since 1996.

Before the vote, he was Australia's most popular opposition leader ever, according to Nielsen opinion polls.

His popularity remained high after his election but dropped to a personal low of 41% in June 2010 after he delayed the introduction of an emissions trading scheme and announced a new tax on mining profits.

Gillard seized her chance and announced that she'd secured enough internal support to take over the Labor leadership.

"It's not normal in Australia that just because a politician's approval numbers drop they suddenly get dropped," said John Stirton, research director at market research company Nielsen Australia.

"There's got to be something more going on, and it's quite clear there was something more going on. He (Rudd) really alienated most of his colleagues."

Who was the more popular leader?

While Rudd was -- and arguably still is -- unpopular with his Labor colleagues, he remains much more popular with the Australian public than his rival Gillard, according to Nielsen opinion polls.

Stirton says voters consider him "credible, calm and on top of his brief, as someone with a sense of humor."

Earlier this month, most voters indicated that they preferred Rudd as Labor leader. "I guess that has been the tragedy of Kevin Rudd in a way, because he could have been prime minister for a very long time on those popularity numbers," Stirton said.

It's not normal in an Australia that just because a politician's approval numbers drop they suddenly get dropped
John Stirton, Nielsen Australia

Gillard has never matched Rudd's popularity ratings, and her leadership has been undermined, Stirton said, by "unknown people in the Labor Party."

The ALP itself has seen its popularity tumble. In December, The Australian newspaper reported that "the period of the Rudd-Gillard Labor leaderships covers Labor's longest, deepest slump in popular support."

The latest battle

If early indications are anything to go by, it's going to be a brutal few days in Australian politics before Monday's vote.

Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan came out swinging in a statement that accused the former leader of undermining the government "at every turn."

Swan referred to Rudd's "dysfunctional decision making" and "deeply demeaning attitude" towards other people. In response, Rudd said he had been "shocked and disappointed by the tone and content of the intensely personal attacks."

Rudd's supporters have also gone on the attack. Federal Manufacturing Minister, Kim Carr, on Thursday accused the Gillard camp of mounting a "campaign of vilification" against Rudd, according to the ABC.

Who is likely to win Monday's ballot?

Under a banner simply titled "The numbers," The Australian is tracking which way Labor party members are leaning on its website.

At the time of writing, 65 were deemed to be in favor of Gillard, while 31 were supporting Rudd. Seven were thought to be undecided.

At issue is who party members believe has enough support to win a federal election next year. Both Gillard and Rudd say they are best placed to take on a strengthened opposition.

Stirton said it probably doesn't matter who wins Monday's leadership vote. If Australians cast their votes right now, polls indicate that opposition leader Abbott would become Australia's next prime minister.

"He would win an election but he's an unpopular leader leading a popular party," Stirton said."The government is losing rather than the opposition are winning, if you know what I mean."

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