By DR.ABDUL RUFF
New Zealand’s center-right wing opposition National Party has swept to power, ending PM Helen Clark’s nine-year center- left Labor government. Helen Clark, one of the world’s longest-serving elected female leaders, presided over years of strong growth and social reforms, but the economy has gone into recession this year, and she admitted defeat and said she would step down as leader. In the 120-seat parliament, the center-right opposition won 45% of the vote, against 34% for Labor, leaving it just short of an overall majority. Mrs Clark said she accepted responsibility for the result and her job as leader of the Labor Party was complete. Casting her vote in Auckland, Mrs. Clark felt “very, very positive” about her chances. “We have countless thousands of people mobilizing Labor supporters out to the polling booths today, and feeling very good about it,” she had said.
About three million people were registered to vote – a record number for the country – though the estimated turnout, at 78.69%, was slightly down on the previous election in 2005. Voting has ended in New Zealand’s general election on Nov 08, in which the ruling Labor party faced a strong challenge after nine years in power. The centre-right National Party was hoping to oust Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Green allies, probably with the backing of smaller parties. Some predicted a kingmaker role for the Maori Party, which has signaled it could work with either major party. According to official figures, National is set to win 59 seats, Labor 43 and their allies the Greens, with 6% of the vote, eight, in the 122-seat parliament. Election officials say a record number of people registered to vote, with 2,979,366 enrolled by 1600 on Friday, almost 95% of those eligible.
Both main 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, Australia and East Asian countries.
Seventeen small parties were 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 wish-list 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.
After the results, National leader John Key told supporters that hundreds and thousands of people across the country had “voted for change”, for a safer, more prosperous and ambitious New Zealand, but warned of tough times ahead. John Key said he hoped his government would be inclusive. “I want to run a centre-right government, a pragmatic and decisive government, but certainly one that reflects the views of all New Zealanders,” he said. National Party will be able to govern with the help of two smaller parties – the United Future and ACT parties – and will also look for support to the Maori Party.
New Zealand, a wealthy Pacific nation, is dominated by two cultural groups: New Zealanders of European descent, and the minority Maori, whose Polynesian ancestors arrived on the islands around 1,000 years ago. Agriculture is the economic mainstay, but manufacturing and tourism are important and there is a fledgling film industry.
New Zealand has diversified its export markets and has developed strong trade links with Australia, the US, and Japan. In April 2008 it became the first Western country to sign a free trade deal with China.
Since the country introduced proportional voting in 1996, neither of the big parties has won an outright majority and they have always relied on the support of minor parties. Clark had said she is willing to bargain with the Maori Party. Any deal, she added, would “come at a cost”. But the new government will seek the backing of the Maori Party, formed before the 2005 election to give an authentic voice to indigenous people. Among Maori demands are the repeal of a law preventing Maoris from claiming rights to the foreshore and seabed, and greater control over government spending on indigenous programs to prevent waste. However, Key said his party was “diametrically opposed” to some of its policies, and Maori leader Tatiana Turin said there would be hard bargaining involved in any deal. Among Maori demands are the repeal of a law preventing Maoris from claiming rights to the foreshore and seabed, and greater control over government spending on indigenous programs to prevent waste.
The country’s current recession has loomed large in the campaign. But few major policy shifts are expected, whoever wins. Both Labor and National have promised tax cuts and extra spending, amid fears that the global credit crisis will hurt New Zealand still further. 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 health care.
Last time in 2005, the general election in New Zealand confirmed that the governing Labor Party was still the biggest in the outgoing parliament. Labour Party has 50 seats in the 121-member parliament, two more than the main opposition National Party. Ms Clark was the first Labour prime minister to win three successive terms. The National party had hoped to overturn Labor’s lead as the last votes were counted, but instead lost ground. This time around, NP has overturned the results in its favor.
Labour was seeking a fourth term in government, but polls indicated it was unlikely to win enough seats to ensure a workable majority with its allies among the smaller parties in the 120-seat single-chamber parliament. Veteran politician and former academic Ms Clark has campaigned on a platform of safe hands in uncertain times. 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 of New Zealand First Party. 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.
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.
There no obvious reason for the defeat of the Labour Party, though economic ailment is said to be the key cause. However, the anti-incumbency factor has inflicted the damage to the long time ruling party. It may not rival the US presidential election for high drama, but New Zealand voters who went to the polls on Nov 08 to elect a new government seemed to see the choice they were making in much the same terms having realized time for a change. The difference is that New Zealand has had nine years of centre-left government led by Helen Clark’s Labour Party. She was challenged by a former market trader and self-made millionaire, John Key, who has rejuvenated the centre-right National Party and turned it into an election winner.
Post-script: Newcomer’s Long-held dream
After inflicting a crushing defeat on its main rival in the 2005 election, Labour faced a serious challenge from National under its new leader John Key. With just five years in parliament, 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, 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 Party leader John Key, a multimillionaire former investment banker, has capitalized on the mood of change seen in the USA, with the election of Barack Obama as president this week. He also said he will be willing to strike a deal with the Maori Party, even though he said his party “diametrically opposed” some of its policies. John Key made a fortune as a currency trader before returning to New Zealand to pursue his political ambitions. Critics said that with only six years’ experience as an MP, he did not have the experience to successfully lead New Zealand as prime minister. But after rejuvenating the centre-right National Party, he has swept to power in an election dominated by change. “In their hundreds and thousands across the country they have voted for change,” he said after his victory.
John Key was born in Auckland and brought up by his mother after his father died when Key was only six years old. After training as an accountant, he became a currency trader in New Zealand, before moving to Singapore and then London.
During a successful, and highly-paid career, he earned the nickname “smiling assassin” for his ability to remain cheerful while making staff cuts. In returning home and running for political office he “fulfilled a long-held ambition”. He won the Helensville seat in 2002 – and again in 2005, having increased his majority eightfold.
Key, who is married with two children, was elected leader of the party in 2006. He has forced National into the political middle, accepting Labour policies such as the anti-nuclear law and the deployment of troops to Afghanistan. But his pledge to lower taxes and get tough on criminal gangs also appealed to voters.
Though the recession loomed large in the campaign, few major policy shifts are expected once the new government takes over. Both Labour and National had promised tax cuts and extra spending, amid fears that the global credit crisis will hit New Zealand hard.
There is likely to be little change in New Zealand’s trade or foreign policy with National heading the next government. John Key has already warned of difficult times. “We must make the most of our advantages because the state of the global economy and the global financial crisis means that the road ahead may well be a rocky one,” he said. However, the change of guard in Washington would demand corresponding shifts in policy contours in due time.