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Thursday, 25 November, 1999, 16:15 GMT
New Zealand's poll: Change at the top?
Jenny Shipley Mrs Shipley admits her National Party is the underdog

As New Zealanders go to the polls on Saturday the governing National Party is facing a strong challenge from a reconstructed Labour Party, which has been out of office for almost a decade.

I think this election is anybody's election
Jenny Shipley, NZ Prime Minister
For the first time in a western democracy both main contenders for the premiership are women, but campaigning on both sides seems to have so far failed to catch the imagination of voters.

Trailing in the polls is incumbent Prime Minister Jenny Shipley who has led a minority government since deposing her predecessor, Jim Bolger, in a 1997 party coup.

We have done a lot of listening and I believe I have rebuilt the Labour Party
Helen Clark, Labour Party leader
A former farmer's wife, she presided over a series of ruthless health and social security cuts in the early 1990s earning a reputation as a hard-nosed politician and the nickname "the perfumed bulldozer."

Mrs Shipley has already admitted that after nine years in power and three successive victories her conservative National Party is the underdog in the ballot.

Voters undecided

However, opinion polls show large numbers of voters still undecided and Mrs Shipley insists the election is still all to play for.

Helen Clark Helen Clark: Labour's challenger for the top job
A late, informal poll at a West Auckland polling booth with the reputation of matching national voting patterns almost exactly put National marginally ahead.

The New Zealand Herald reported a four to three advantage for the ruling party at the St Paul's Hall booth, but almost unanimous expectation of a Labour/Alliance Party coalition victory.

Most observers say that the centrist Labour Party, headed by former political scientist and student activist Helen Clark, is most likely to come out on top.

Latest polls show Labour holding a fairly consistent 6-8% lead over National.

New Labour

Described by her critics in the party as a "Chardonnay socialist", Mrs Clark first rose to prominence in 1989 as deputy prime minister in the then Labour government.

Industrial location For most New Zealanders the main issue is the country's sluggish economy
Her campaign has borrowed heavily from the successful 1997 New Labour challenge in the UK, employing many of the tactics that brought Prime Minister Tony Blair a landslide victory.

Like Mr Blair she says she has "done a lot of listening" from which she has rebuilt the Labour Party and she appears increasingly confident that New Zealanders are ready for a change of leadership.

But she has appeared ill at ease amid the bright lights of the campaign trail and to her frustration much media coverage has focused on her frequently changing personal appearance.

Amongst those thought likely to be winners for Labour is former male prostitute and stripper Georgina Beyer, who appears set to become the country's first transsexual MP.

Already mayor for the North Island town of Carterton, and a member of New Zealand's indigenous Maori community, Ms Beyer says she is the ideal candidate to stand up for the rights of New Zealand's minority groups.

It's the economy ...

For most voters the main issue is the sluggish state of the economy.

Labour is pledging more government intervention to kick start growth, higher taxes for the wealthy and increased spending on health and education. But it says its plans will be carried out within a constraint of rebuilding budget surpluses to more than 1% of GDP.

But Mrs Shipley says Labour's tax hikes would "slam the brakes on growth", pledging that if National is returned to power she would deliver 4% growth and create more than 100,000 new jobs.

Coalition parteners

Scenting victory, Mrs Clark has already scheduled a meeting with the leaders of the Alliance Party on Sunday to hammer out a coalition.

The Alliance Party is to the left of Labour - Alliance leader Jim Anderton backs higher taxes and import tariffs to raise funding for increased social spending.

The Green Party - also led by a woman, Jeanette Fitzsimons - is another likely partner. In a battle fought largely in the centre ground - and hence short on passion and bold statements - the Green's headline grabbing proposals for the legalisation of marijuana and the banning of genetically-modified foods have added a rare splash of colour.

They also seem to have drawn the attentions of a significant number of voters.

After failing to produce even a single candidate in 1996 the Greens are reckoned to be front-runners in at least six seats. But they are saying they won't consider joining a coalition until after the final results are known.

With chances fading for another centre-right win there is also speculation that National's pro-free-market ally, the ACT Party, might jump ship and go head-to-head with their coalition partners in the hope of increasing its presence in opposition.

But the post-election negotiations could take some time depending on the permutations thrown up by New Zealand's complex system of proportional representation, first used in the last election in 1996.

Then it took a full eight weeks to form a government, although to be fair to the polititcians they did have to wait for the maverick leader of the then pivotal New Zealand First party, Winston Peters, to return from a sailing trip.

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