Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted on Tuesday that she continued to enjoy the support of the majority of her governing Labor Party, as she sought to silence growing speculation that her foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, was planning to challenge her as Australia’s leader.
The move to dispel the swirling rumors comes as the deeply unpopular Ms. Gillard, who seized the leadership from Mr. Rudd in an internal party coup in 2010, has had to face a steady stream of reports that lawmakers loyal to the former prime minister were maneuvering behind the scenes to restore him to power.
“I’m getting on with the job with the strong support of my caucus colleagues,” Ms. Gillard told reporters in the capital, Canberra. “I’m getting on with my job. Kevin Rudd’s getting on with his.”
Mr. Rudd, who was in Mexico attending a gathering of the Group of 20 foreign ministers, also dismissed the issue when questioned about the subject by reporters on Monday.
But, as he frequently has when rumors of his political ambitions have arisen over the past two years, he kept his answers conspicuously in the present tense.
A challenge “is not in prospect because we have a prime minister and I am the foreign minister,” he said.
Neither statement seems likely to silence the cacophony of coup-related reporting dominating the country’s news media.
The Tuesday edition of The Australian devoted nearly six pages to the affair, including a front-page story and a scathing editorial that accused both Ms. Gillard and Mr. Rudd of failing to exhibit leadership qualities.
The left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, reported that pro-Rudd members of Parliament had been circulating a petition calling for a Labor Party leadership ballot as early as next week, when Mr. Rudd is scheduled to return from his overseas trip.
At least 35 of the 103 Labor lawmakers in Parliament would have to sign on to the petition to force a leadership vote.
It remains unclear how much support Mr. Rudd actually has within the party, however, which is one possible reason his supporters have not yet pushed for a ballot.
Mr. Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who led his party back into power in 2007, is widely derided within the Labor leadership for what has often been described as an autocratic leadership style.
But his stunning removal as prime minister in 2010 angered many, and the Australian public continues to display a deep ambivalence toward Ms. Gillard, despite significant legislative successes and strong economic growth under her stewardship.
Fears within the party that she is now simply too unpopular to return Labor to power in elections scheduled for August of next year seem to be playing a strong role in the current dispute.
The latest data released by the Nielsen polling agency earlier this month indicated that 57 percent of voters would prefer Mr. Rudd as Labor leader, while 35 percent would choose Ms. Gillard.
That comes as Labor has fallen behind the main opposition coalition by 53 percent to 47 percent.
The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, whose poll numbers have also labored in the doldrums despite the growing popularity of his coalition, has been an unrelenting critic of Ms. Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister.
He chimed in on the unfolding political drama on Tuesday, calling it “a poisonous soap opera.”
“What I want to see are better policies in Canberra, more stable government in Canberra and I doubt this hopelessly divided and dysfunctional government can provide that,” he was quoted as saying in The Australian. “I think it’s beyond repair.”