MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked his fellow Pentecostal churchgoers on Sunday (May 19) after a miraculous election victory that defied years of unfavourable opinion polls and bruised a Labor opposition that had been widely expected to win.
Morrison’s Liberal-led conservative coalition has won or is leading in 76 seats, the number needed to form a majority government, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.
Slightly more than three-quarters of the roughly 17 million votes have been counted.
A jubilant Morrison hugged community members after an early Sunday service at the Horizon Church in Sydney’s southern suburbs, from where he was first elected to Parliament in 2007.
“You don’t get to be a prime minister and serve in that capacity unless you first are a member of your local electorate,” he said.
He drew cheers later on Sunday when he arrived in the stands to watch his team, the Cronulla Sharks, in a rugby league match in his beachside electorate.
Morrison told raucously cheering supporters late on Saturday, who just hours earlier had seemed resigned to defeat, that he had always believed in miracles.
The result drew comparisons with Republican Trump's victory in 2016, when the real estate mogul defied polls to defeat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by winning over the so-called silent majority.
Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were among the first world leaders to congratulate Morrison.
"Congratulations to Scott on a GREAT WIN," US President Donald Trump said on Twitter.
The White House said Trump and Morrison spoke by phone and "pledged to continue their close cooperation on shared priorities".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also congratulated Morrison on Sunday.
"I know that under your leadership the great friendship between Australia and Israel will grow even stronger," Netanyahu said on Twitter.
Australia formally recognised west Jerusalem as Israel's capital late last year, reversing decades of Middle East policy and following Trump's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Jacinda Ardern, the progressive prime minister of neighbouring New Zealand, also called to congratulate him, saying that Morrison “understands us”.
The opposition Labor party has conceded defeat and Bill Shorten stepped down as its leader.
Opinion polls in Australia had all pointed to a Labor victory ahead of Saturday's vote. So strong was the expectation the government would fall that one betting agency even paid out bets on a Labor win days before the election.
The government campaigned on a platform of tax cuts and stability, while Labor promised to reduce inequality through tax reform, higher wages, better public infrastructure and faster action on climate change.
But Shorten, a former union leader, was never seen as a popular leader.
Morrison, however, cast himself as the candidate who would work for aspirational voters and the tactic seemed to strike a chord.
A Pentecostal church-goer, Morrison took over as prime minister last year when he emerged as the unexpected winner of infighting within the Liberal party, the senior partner within the Liberal-National coalition.
Senior Labor figures began lining up on Sunday for the leadership after the centre-left party lost what some commentators called an “unlosable” election.
“What you see is what you get with me, for better or worse,” Albanese told a news conference. “I am a bit rough at the edges, but I think that Australians don’t want someone who just utters talking points.”
Attempts by populist and far-right parties to win influence in the upper house Senate largely fell flat.
Fraser Anning, who sparked outrage when he blamed Muslim immigration for the New Zealand mosque shootings that killed 51 people in March, lost his Senate seat in Queensland state.
Mining magnate Clive Palmer, who spent tens of millions of dollars on a campaign aimed at disaffected voters, also failed to secure a place, although his campaign against Labor likely had an impact on the overall result.
Morrison’s coalition defied expectations by holding onto a string of seats in the outer suburbs of Australia’s largest cities, as well as in the resources-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia and the small island state of Tasmania.
Fitch Ratings said in a note the result would bring policy continuity, including the coalition's pledge to start delivering budget surpluses next financial year.