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NZ Maori Party may hold key to general elections

NZ Maori Party may hold key to general elections

New Zealanders voted Saturday to choose a new government, with long-serving Prime Minister Helen Clark facing a tough challenge from a conservative rival and a chance that indigenous Maori will hold the balance of power for the first time.
In bright spring sunshine, voters cast ballots at more than 2,500 polling stations set up in schools, churches and community halls across the South Pacific country of some 4.1 million people perhaps best known for its "Lord of the Rings" landscape. Polls closed in the early evening, and results were expected within a few hours.
The two major parties _ Clark's Labour and conservative John Key's Nationals _ are almost certain not to gain a majority in the 123-seat Parliament in their own right, and have already wooed smaller groups to their side.
Opinion polls have consistently tipped the Nationals, with its allies, to win power for the first time in a decade. With 6 percent of the vote counted, Key had an early lead with 49 percent while Labour and its Green Party ally holding 37 percent.
A surge by Labour _ which Clark insisted Saturday could happen _ may hand the balance of power to the Maori Party, which is expected to win at least four seats and is the only small player not already aligned with one of the big parties.
Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia says it is prepared to put either National or Labour into government, and that a deal would "come at a cost."
"We'll decide totally based on ... what we are able to advance for our people," Turia said this week.
Among their demands are the repeal of a law preventing Maori from claiming rights to the seabed and foreshore, and greater control over government spending on indigenous programs to prevent waste.
Clark says she is willing to bargain with the Maori Party; Key concedes his party is "diametrically opposed" to the Maori group on some issues but said he will strike a deal if it means taking power.
Barack Obama's election this week as the United States' first African-American president reverberated across the world as a triumph over old stereotypes, a chord that rang especially true for minority groups, including the Maori in New Zealand.
Maori account for 15 percent of New Zealand's 3.4 million population and are its poorest, worst-housed and least-healthy citizens, suffering higher unemployment and crime rates than most others.
Mary Henare, 35, a Maori homemaker who voted Saturday near the capital, Wellington, said Obama's supporters had shown that anything was possible and had inspired hope that Maori could rise to New Zealand's highest office.
"It was a monumental, historical event in our lifetime, a huge plus for all black, indigenous and colored people," Henare said of Obama's win. "When they were saying 'Yes, we can,' it was an opportunity for us to say 'Hey, maybe the Maori Party can one day.'"
Foreign affairs and trade policies are unlikely to change much no matter which side wins _ including the long-standing ban on nuclear-powered ships entering New Zealand ports that has rankled military ally the U.S.
The global financial crisis loomed large in the campaign, worsening a recession and forcing the main parties to pare back promises of big tax cuts.
Clark, a 58-year-old former academic and avid wilderness trekker with a reputation for a serious, even dour, demeanor, has led the country since 1999, making her one of the world's longest-serving elected female leaders.
Key, 47, a multimillionaire former foreign currency trader, tried to co-opt Obama's success, saying New Zealand, like America, was ready for change.
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Associated Press writer Ray Lilley contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-24 06:03 GMT+08:00