CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard threw open her job to a party leadership ballot Wednesday and the man she ousted three years ago stepped up to challenge her, saying their party will face a "catastrophic defeat" without a change at the top.
Gillard made the move in response to reports that Kevin Rudd's supporters were pushing for a challenge, in hopes of avoiding what opinion polls suggest will be a massive defeat for the ruling Labor Party in elections set for September.
Gillard said there will be a ballot of Labor lawmakers at 7 p.m. Canberra time (9 a.m. GMT, 5 a.m. EDT), in a closed-door meeting.
Rudd accepted the challenge to regain the job that he lost to Gillard in 2010. He previously had ruled out such a challenge unless he was assured of the overwhelming support of his colleagues.
"The truth is many, many MPs (members of parliament) have requested me for a long time to contest the leadership of the party because of the parlous circumstances we now face," Rudd said.
"We are on course for a catastrophic defeat unless there is change. And so today, I am saying to you, to the people of Australia, I'm seeking to respond to your call that I've heard from so many of you to do what I can" to prevent opposition leader Tony Abbott from becoming prime minister.
Rudd's supporters are desperate to have a ballot before Parliament rises for the last time Thursday ahead of elections set for Sept. 14. Opinion polls suggest Labor could lose around half its 71 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, where parties form the government, but they also show that Rudd would be a more popular leader than Gillard.
A party powerbroker and influential Gillard ally, Bill Shorten, announced shortly before the ballot that he would back Rudd.
"I have now come to the view that Labor stands the best chance to defend the legacies of this term of government and to continue improving the lives of millions of Australians if Kevin Rudd is our leader," Shorten said.
Gillard said she believed she would survive the vote: "I wouldn't be putting myself forward unless I had a degree of confidence about the support of my parliamentary colleagues."
She said whoever loses should quit Parliament at the election, and Rudd agreed. Gillard said it was not right to have a "person floating around as the potential alternative prime minister."
Gillard's announcement followed media reports that a petition was circulating among the 102 Labor Party lawmakers. A special party meeting to discuss a leadership ballot would have been called if at least 34 lawmakers — 30 percent — signed that petition, but her announcement eliminated that step.
A Rudd victory could trigger an earlier election if he cannot attract the level of support from independent lawmakers and from the minor Greens party that Gillard managed.
An independent lawmaker who supported Gillard's minority government, Tony Windsor, said he would not support a government led by Rudd. But another independent who rejected Gillard, Bob Katter, said he would support Rudd.
The governor-general could call an election if neither Rudd nor Abbott could command a majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives.
Rudd had been a popular prime minister who started sliding in the polls when Gillard, his then deputy, challenged him to a leadership ballot three years ago. He did not contest the ballot when he became aware of the level of Gillard's support, so she was unopposed when she became the first female prime minister in Australia's history.
Weeks later, Gillard led Labor to a narrow election victory and formed an unpopular minority government with the support of independent lawmakers and a legislator from the minor Greens party.
In a 2012 ballot, Gillard easily defeated Rudd 71 votes to 31. In February, she threw open her job to a leadership ballot to end leadership speculation, but Rudd refused to challenge and she remained prime minister.
Abbott had challenged Gillard on Wednesday to bring forward the election to Aug. 3 because of the new wrangling over leadership.
"Given the paralysis now griping her government and irreconcilable differences in her party over its leadership, will she bring forward the election date to Aug. 3 and let the people decide who should run our country?" Abbott asked in Parliament.
Before announcing the leadership ballot, Gillard replied that she continued to govern effectively.
"I can assure him (Abbott) and I can assure the Australian people that as prime minister I am getting on with the job," she said.