WELLINGTON (AFP) – New Zealanders head to the polls on Saturday amid signs Prime Minister John Key has managed to ride out dirty tricks allegations and will narrowly win a third term after highlighting his economic record.
While New Zealand’s complicated proportional voting system is notoriously hard to predict, most opinion polls have Key’s centre-right National Party returning to power with the support of a handful of minor parties to form government.
The main opposition Labour Party along with the Greens stand as their closest rivals – with Winston Peters, the leader of the minor New Zealand First party, shaping up to become kingmaker if the election night count is too close to call.
Much of National’s success through a tumultuous campaign is credited to the personal popularity of the charismatic Key, a 53-year-old who rose from a humble childhood to earn his fortune as a merchant banker.
Policies have largely taken a backseat in the campaign to allegations of government “dirty tricks”, based on hacked emails, and accusations of mass spying on the population.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key celebrates his victory in the 2011 general election in Auckland on November 26, 2011. New Zealanders head to the polls on Saturday amid signs Key has managed to ride out dirty tricks allegations and will narrowly win a third term after highlighting his economic record – AFP
Throughout the furore, in which one cabinet minister resigned, Key steadfastly refuted any suggestions of wrong-doing.
He demanded his accusers show proof, which has not been provided, and pointed to his government’s economic record, producing the country’s first budget surplus in six years.
His personal popularity, polling around 50 per cent in the preferred leader stakes, has been central to the National Party’s “Team Key” campaign and to surviving the onslaught with little drop-off in public support.
“The whole campaign has revolved around security issues and hackers. It hasn’t really revolved around policies,” professor emeritus of politics at Auckland University, Barry Gustafson, told AFP.
“People tended to say ‘do we believe the prime minister or not’ and he had a good reservoir of goodwill and popularity before it started.
“My guess is the National Party … will get it.”
Political analyst Colin James, who has correctly predicted which party would head the New Zealand government in 14 of the past 15 elections, also said the pointers were for a third term for Key.
“The same two underlying drivers apply in this election as in other recent ones, household finances … and personality (where) Key wins hands down,” he said.
“For a wide swathe of middling households finances have lifted over the past two years, with modest job and income growth. That is reflected in strong poll readings of consumer confidence and whether the country is on the right or wrong track.”