By Gyles Beckford
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A pugnacious political maverick who wants tighter controls on the economy, immigration and on foreigners buying land, is shaping up as the king maker in New Zealand elections on Saturday.
Opinion polls indicate that Winston Peters, the leader of the small and economically nationalist New Zealand First Party, could control a strategic block of seats and determine whether the South Pacific nation is governed by a left-leaning or a right-leaning centrist coalition.
It is a role Peters has filled in the past, although this time New Zealand is facing a somewhat unusual general election that even includes a party founded by Internet tycoon and alleged online pirate, Kim Dotcom.
Dotcom, who is eligible to vote but cannot run for office because he is not a New Zealand citizen, launched his Internet Party in April with a crowd-sourced platform that promotes online privacy rights and reforms to copyright laws.
While not a major political player in itself, it could also end up influencing the outcome of the poll if it ties up with another fringe party, under New Zealand's German-style proportional voting system.
Peters' party, however, is more likely to influence the outcome and he has promised to keep his party's options open.
"We are not going to sell our soul purely to be in a government," he said.
A Reuters survey of the main opinion polls shows the National Party led by Prime Minister John Key, a former investment banker, with 48 percent support but backing for National's junior partners is falling.
That makes New Zealand's First 6.8 percent support potentially pivotal. The main opposition Labour Party trails with 25 percent support, the survey shows.
"We could end up with a hung parliament, and that will make Winston Peters the kingmaker," said political scientist Bryce Edwards.
SUPPORT FOR KEY
Peters has been in this position before. In 1996, he teased the two main parties for eight weeks before siding with National. In 2005, he became foreign minister in a center-left Labour-led government despite promising not to be seduced by the "baubles of office".
His nationalist policies resonate with older and socially conservative voters among New Zealand's roughly 4.5 million people.
This year he railed against a Chinese company buying New Zealand farms and shrugged off charges of racism.
Key has held power since victory in the 2008 election, during which he called Peters unprincipled and untrustworthy.
However, this time, Key, seeking a third straight election win, has said he could work with Peters if necessary and might even consider giving him a ministerial post.
An outright majority may still elude Key even with the backing of the small centrist United Future Party and the right wing, free-market Act Party and their tiny support levels.
Key, 53, is pushing his government's record of steering New Zealand's economy through recession and the global financial crisis toward budget surplus and the prospect of tax cuts in two years.
The economy grew a seasonally adjusted 0.7 percent in the quarter to June 30, data out on Thursday showed, taking the annual rate to 3.9 percent.
Key, known for his relaxed style, has unrivalled personal support levels. He emerged from the election campaign largely unscathed despite accusations of dirty politics and allegations by a U.S. investigative journalist that New Zealand planned mass secret domestic surveillance last year.
In contrast, Labour leader David Cunliffe has struggled to win support for a capital gains tax and increased help for underprivileged families.
Labour's best hope appears to lie with the Green Party's 13 percent support and the hope of attracting Peters to the negotiating table.
(Additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)