Helen Clark's decade-long dominance of New Zealand politics has ended, with her Labour government swept from power last night by a centre-right coalition led by a baby-faced former currency trader and investment banker.
John Key, who entered parliament in 2002, scored a convincing victory over the battle-hardened Ms Clark, a politician for 27 years and Prime Minister for the past nine. Mr Key's National Party is expected to govern with the help of two small conservative parties, ACT and United Future.
Within minutes of conceding defeat, Ms Clark announced her resignation as Labour leader. Accepting responsibility for the election loss, she said she would look back on her time in office "with an incredible amount of pride". Respected around the world for her intellect and negotiating skills, she is expected to be offered an important international role.
While the campaign was overshadowed by the US election, the outcome was influenced by a similar desire for political and generational change. Mr Key is 47, the same age as Barack Obama, and, like him, is relatively untried. He inherits similar problems, including an economy already in recession. However, New Zealand, with its population of 4.1 million, is a minor player on the world stage.
Ms Clark, 58, had sought a historic fourth term, a feat achieved only once before, in 1969. After the 2005 election, she cobbled together a minority coalition government. But while her personal standing remained high, voters grew increasingly disillusioned with her party. Addressing supporters in Auckland, Mr Key declared that "New Zealand has spoken", with voters opting resoundingly "for change". In a reference to Mr Obama's victory speech, he ruled out buying his children a dog.
With 99 per cent of votes counted last night, National and its allies had secured 59 seats in the 120-member parliament, to the Labour bloc's 52.
Mr Key's rise ends 11 years of female leadership in New Zealand, where Ms Clark – the first elected woman Prime Minister – was preceded by National's Jenny Shipley, who deposed a colleague mid-term. Under Ms Clark, women achieved unprecedented prominence, occupying senior jobs including chief justice and governor-general.
While Ms Clark's politics were forged in the fire of the anti-Vietnam War protests, Mr Key is a self-made multi-millionaire with a down-to-earth background. He was brought up in a Christchurch council house by his widowed mother, an Austrian immigrant. During the 1990s, he made a fortune as a foreign exchange dealer in Singapore and London. Mr Key calls himself a centrist, not a right-winger, and is expected to pursue a foreign policy similar to Ms Clark's. New Zealand's longstanding ban on visits by nuclear-powered warships – maintained by governments of every hue since it was introduced by Labour's David Lange in 1987 – will remain in place.
Labour had lagged in the polls for two years, partly because of voter fatigue, partly because of policies that – while popular with core supporters – had alienated many New Zealanders. They included legislation outlawing the smacking of children, and an emissions trading scheme aimed at making New Zealand the world's first carbon-neutral nation. Ms Clark is expected to be replaced as Labour leader by Phil Goff, a long-serving, if uncharismatic, cabinet minister.