Woman poised to lead NZ

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The Independent Online
New Zealand, which led the world in giving women the vote 103 years ago, looked likely last night to have a woman Prime Minister for the first time after a close-fought election - itself the first under a new voting system.

No party won an overall majority, but the Labour Party leader, Helen Clark, appeared to be closest to power, even though the National Party incumbent, Jim Bolger, won more seats. Both claimed victory for their policies in the first election since New Zealand adopted a system of proportional representation that left Winston Peters, the Maori leader of New Zealand First, holding the balance of power.

Last night Mr Peters was refusing to show his hand, pending coalition talks that he said could take weeks to conclude. It is clear he will hold out for the best possible deal, including the Deputy Prime Minister's job.

Until a coalition deal is struck, the National Party will continue as a caretaker government.

Ms Clark, 46, hailed the result as "a clear trend towards voters' demand for a change of government" and a halt to a decade of economic reform that Labour says has benefited the rich and created a disadvantaged underclass. Her own fortunes have changed drastically since her first two years as opposition leader, when her lank hair style, drab dress sense and unsmiling manner gave her a popularity rating of between 4 and 6 per cent.

Earlier this year some male colleagues tried to unseat her, fearing an election disaster. Instead the former student radical and university professor remodelled herself six weeks before polling day. Armed with well-cut suits, a fashionable new hair-style and some coaching in television presentation, she performed confidently on the campaign trail and during televised debates.