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Time for change in New Zealand?

By Angie Knox
BBC News, Hamilton

It may not rival the US presidential election for high drama, but New Zealand voters going to the polls on Saturday to elect a new government see the choice they are making in much the same terms: more of the same, or time for a change?

New Zealand PM Helen Clark campaigns for re-election in a burger bar
Prime Minister Helen Clark, pictured in pink, is facing a stiff challenge
The difference is that New Zealand has had nine years of centre-left government led by Helen Clark's Labour Party.

She is now being challenged by a former market trader and self-made millionaire, John Key, who has rejuvenated the centre-right National Party and turned it into a likely election winner.

The global financial crisis and strict new rules curtailing election spending have made this a relatively low-key election campaign for political parties and voters alike.

Minor scuffles in two provincial towns between supporters of rival political parties as campaigning wound up were one of the few signs of voter enthusiasm for the three-yearly election process.

And commentators largely agreed that no clear winner emerged from the three televised leaders' debates.

'Third-term-itis'

Labour is seeking a fourth term in government, but polls indicate it is unlikely to win enough seats to ensure a workable majority with its allies among the smaller parties in the 120-seat single-chamber parliament.

Nez Zealand prime ministerial candidate John Key campaigns in Auckland on Friday
Mr Key is stressing his credentials in business and finance

Veteran politician and former academic Ms Clark has campaigned on a platform of safe hands in uncertain times, but her party may well fall victim to what one seasoned political commentator has called "third-term-itis".

While Labour has presided over a sustained period of economic growth and record low unemployment levels, the New Zealand economy has been steadily losing ground and is now officially in recession.

Tax is usually a top issue for voters, but the financial crisis, coupled with this year's food and fuel price hikes, also took the shine off Labour's pre-election sweetener of personal tax cuts.

In addition, Ms Clark has been rocked by a political donation inquiry involving her government's now-suspended foreign minister, Winston Peters.

Mr Peters held the foreign affairs portfolio outside cabinet in return for his New Zealand First Party's support in parliament, but a string of politically damaging allegations - including that he used a helicopter belonging to one of New Zealand's richest businessmen for political campaigning - may force his exit from parliament.

Newcomer

After defeating its main rival in the 2005 election, Labour now faces a serious challenge from National under its new leader John Key.

With just five years in parliament, Mr Key is a mere newcomer compared to Ms Clark who entered parliament 27 years ago and has been prime minister since 1999.

Despite efforts by Labour to portray him as untrustworthy, Mr Key has been campaigning under the slogan "it's time for a change", and has made much of his business and financial credentials in his pledge to revive New Zealand's economic fortunes.

National has also promised to take a tougher stand on law and order, slim down the bureaucracy and cut red tape, and raise standards in public education and healthcare.

Continuity

Analysts say there is likely to be little change in New Zealand's trade or foreign policy if National heads the next government.

Both parties are committed to free trade and multilateralism, and following the successful conclusion of a free trade agreement with China earlier this year, the new government is likely to continue the push for similar agreements with the United States, India and East Asian countries.

The smaller parties will be hoping that neither Labour nor National wins big on Saturday.

Seventeen small parties are contesting the election, and under New Zealand's mixed-member proportional representation system (MMP), one or more of them may well end up holding the balance of power in parliament.

The biggest players among the minor parties are the Greens, currently with six MPs, and the Maori Party, which has four MPs. A new entrant in the 2005 election, the Maori Party says it aims to give indigenous people an authentic voice in parliament and has indicated it will support the party that offers the best deal in return.

The Maori Party wishlist includes retaining the seven existing Maori electoral seats (which National has indicated it would like to abolish) and better health and education provision for Maori, who make up nearly 15% of New Zealand's population.



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