New Zealand ruling party on verge of huge win

AP News
Posted: Nov 10, 2011 12:30 AM
New Zealand ruling party on verge of huge win

Polls indicate New Zealand could see its most lopsided election in 60 years this month, giving Prime Minister John Key freer rein to sell some government assets to balance the budget.

Key's center-right National Party appears to be on target to become the first New Zealand party to win a majority of the vote since 1951. Since 1996, when the country stopped using a U.S.-style winner-take-all electoral system, parties have had to form coalitions or secure key votes from other parties to gather enough power to rule.

Key, a former currency trader who became prime minister at the last election in 2008, is promising to turn government deficits into surpluses within three years, in part by selling minority stakes in four publicly owned energy companies and in the government's national carrier, Air New Zealand. Key estimates the sales will raise up to 7 billion New Zealand dollars ($5.5 billion).

Although New Zealanders don't directly vote for their Prime Minister, polls indicate Key is favored in the top job over his leading opponent by a ratio of nearly four to one _ even as many New Zealanders are wary of selling the government assets.

Key is featured on hundreds of billboards ahead of the Nov. 26 election, and Raymond Miller, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Auckland, said the premier's popularity appears to be driving his party's success.

"Its very personal," Miller said. "Clearly National sees him as their trump card, and they want to promote him to the hilt."

Miller said New Zealanders may feel reassured by Key during a time of international economic upheaval, and as the country regroups from a February earthquake in the city of Christchurch that killed 182 people and destroyed much of its downtown.

A poll of 1,000 people published this week by Fairfax Media indicated that 52.5 percent of people plan to vote for National. Support for the center-left Labour Party was down from previous polls at 25.9 percent, while support for the environmentally focused Green Party was up, at 12.6 percent. Several smaller parties, including those that helped National form its current government, make up the rest.

The Fairfax poll was in line with other recent polls by New Zealand media outlets.

Like National, the Labour Party is also promising to tackle the nation's debt, but not by selling assets. Labour promises to raise revenue by introducing a capital gains tax and by raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.

Labour leader Phil Goff, who struggled against Key in a recent head-to-head debate, won just 13.5 percent support as preferred prime minister in the Fairfax poll, compared to 52.2 percent for the incumbent.

Voters in the upcoming election also will decide whether to keep New Zealand's electoral system, known as mixed member proportional. Some want the nation of 4.4 million to return a winner-takes-all format, although polling indicates most New Zealanders favor sticking with their current system.