By Lidia Kelly and Jonathan Barrett
MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked his fellow Pentecostal churchgoers on Sunday after a miraculous election victory that defied years of unfavorable 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 raucous supporters late on Saturday, who had earlier seemed resigned to defeat, that he had always believed in miracles.
The result drew comparisons with Republican Donald Trump's victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were among the first world leaders to congratulate Morrison.
"Congratulations to Scott on a GREAT WIN," Trump said on Twitter before calling the Australian leader..
Jacinda Ardern, the progressive prime minister of neighboring New Zealand, also called to congratulate him, saying that Morrison "understands us".
Opinion polls in Australia had all pointed to a Labor victory. 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.
Morrison, who emerged as an unlikely leader after Liberal party infighting last year, cast himself as the candidate who would work for aspirational voters and the tactic seemed to strike a chord.
PAINFUL LABOR LOSS
If the coalition fails to secure at least 76 seats, it will need to rely on support from independent politicians, such as maverick conservative Bob Katter, or small parties to govern.
Labor conceded defeat even with several seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives too close to call and millions of early votes still to be counted. Its leader, Bill Shorten, said he would step down.
Senior Labor figures began lining up on Sunday for the leadership after the center-left party lost what some commentators called an "unlosable" election.
Labor campaigned on a platform of reducing 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.
"You know I really don't like what [Shorten] stands for, although I like what the Labor party stands for," voter Rob Harb told Reuters at Sydney's Bondi Beach on Sunday.
Tanya Plibersek, Shorten's deputy, said she was considering running for the leadership. Veteran Labor figure Anthony Albanese announced he would run after calling the defeat "devastating".
"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.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in MELBOURNE and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by James Redmayne; Editing by Paul Tait)