NZ Maori Party may hold general election key
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By RAY LILLEY
Associated Press Writer
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A party representing New Zealand’s indigenous Maori may hold the key to power in elections Saturday that could also end the rule of one of the world’s longest-serving elected women leaders.
Polls have shown a center-right coalition is consistently ahead of Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour government, though both sides were cautious Friday as they wrapped up their campaigns.
The country’s 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 Washington.
Domestic issues dominated the campaign, though the global financial crisis loomed large, worsening a recession and forcing both main parties to pare back promises of big tax cuts.
Conservative National Party leader John Key, a multimillionaire former foreign currency trader, has campaigned on a platform of change and says he can better steer the country though the economic woes.
Clark argues that the troubled economic times mean voters should stick with the government they know.
"At the end of the day it will be people seeing Labour puts people and jobs first," Clark said, predicting a closer result than polls suggest.
National and Labour are racing for a majority in the 123-seat parliament, but the country’s complex proportional voting system ensures small parties get a significant number of seats, and government is formed after intense horse-trading.
Both sides have wooed smaller allies to their side — Greens and Progressives to Labour and conservatives to National. The only unaligned group is the Maori Party, likely to win at least four seats.
If Labour claws back late ground, the Maori party may be able to play kingmaker.
"We’ll decide totally based on the relationship and also what we are able to advance for our people," Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said of who her group would support after the vote.
Maori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s people but are among the poorest, worst housed, least healthy and suffer higher unemployment and crime rates than most other citizens. They blame their conditions on European colonization that saw their lands seized and many tribes impoverished.
The party’s other leader, Pita Sharples, said Maori had drawn inspiration from Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, which "sends a message to New Zealand that anything is possible."
"It’s a message to the whole world that we can build on our past and move forward," Sharples told The Associated Press. "Such a success in America has got to be stimulating and good for the world."
Maori have been part of mainstream politics in New Zealand for more than a century, and there are more than 20 legislators with indigenous backgrounds across the spectrum of parties.
Sharples said he hoped Obama’s win would spur more voters in New Zealand to support candidates who want to close the social divides between minorities and the broader community.
Clark, 58, and who first came to power in 1999, has pledged to deal with Maori Party concerns.
Key, 47, and in parliament for just five years, acknowledges some of his policies are "diametrically opposed" to the Maori Party’s, but says he will be flexible if they hold the key to his party taking power.