Novice set to end Clark's nine-year reign as New Zealand premier

Conservative challenger from National party tipped to win election
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The Independent Online

Helen Clark, New Zealand's prime minister for the past nine years, is likely to be ousted from power tomorrow in favour of a multi millionaire former currency trader and political novice.

With a mood for change sweeping the country, Ms Clark's Labour Party is trailing the conservative Nationals, led by John Key, by about 10 points. Mr Key, 47, only entered parliament in 2002, and would be the least politically experienced prime minister in New Zealand's history.

That, despite the global economic crisis, does not seem to be deterring voters. While Ms Clark has sought to portray herself as a safe pair of hands, the decisive factor in the election is expected to be the desire for a new government and a fresh face.

The affable Mr Key is a pragmatist who has adopted many of Labour's policies in an effort to seize the middle ground. A moderate politician, he calls himself a "compassionate conservative". Some commentators have likened him to David Cameron.

But while the Nationals seem certain to win most seats, New Zealand's electoral system – based partly on proportional representation – means Mr Key would have to woo minor parties in order to form a government. Under the system, it is almost impossible for one party to rule with an absolute majority.

Minor players range from the Greens, whose MPs have included a marijuana-smoking Rastafarian, Nandor Tanczos, to the anti-immigration New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters. After the last election, Ms Clark was obliged to court Mr Peters, who became her Minister of Foreign Affairs.

This time, the small Maori Party could be king-makers. Formed in 2004 in protest at Labour's nationalisation of the seabed and foreshore, which Maoris say deprived them of their traditional ownership, the party could win all seven seats ringfenced for indigenous MPs.

The only non-aligned party, it would support the Nationals if it was offered sufficient inducement. "The Maori Party is in a very strong position," said Colin James, political columnist with the New Zealand Herald. "There is a real prospect of them holding the balance of power." Given the horse-trading that always follows elections, it is not totally inconceivable that Ms Clark, 58 – already one of the world's longest serving female leaders – could cobble together a minority coalition government and win a historic fourth term. If so, she would be only the second prime minister ever to achieve that. But the arithmetic suggests it is highly unlikely.

Mr Key has pledged to maintain public spending and pursue Labour's independent foreign policy, which included opposition to the Iraq war. He has promised tax cuts, a tough line on law and order, and a firm hand on the economy, which slid into recession in September. He would also water down a carbon trading scheme, which Labour hoped would help transform New Zealand – famous for its pristine environment - into the world's greenest economy. Regardless of the election outcome, the glass ceiling in New Zealand – the first country to give women the vote – has already been resoundingly smashed. With Ms Clark preceded by the National Party's Jenny Shipley, there has been a female prime minister for 11 years. Women have occupied a range of senior public positions, including chief justice and governor general.

Ray Miller, a political scientist at the University of Auckland, said: "Helen Clark has shown women in New Zealand that there's nothing they can't achieve if they set their minds to it."

Political legacy: Labour's pragmatist

* Ms Clark presided over the longest period of economic growth in a generation, although the economy is now in recession and New Zealand's central bank has warned that the next two years will be "difficult".

* Earlier this year New Zealand signed the West's first free-trade agreement with China.

* As Prime Minister she has taken steps to make New Zealand carbon neutral, and has announced that the country will set up a carbon emissions trading scheme. A target has been set by the government for90 per cent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2025, and Ms Clark has also ratified Kyoto.

* Ms Clark's government has scrapped interest on students loans, as well as annually increasing the minimum wage.

* Measures have also been brought in to make health care more affordable for New Zealanders.

* Her government has twice raised the amount of paid leave new parents receive, and it now stands at14 weeks; she has also legislated for same-sex civil unions.

* One of the key moments of her time as Prime Minister of New Zealand has been her opposition to the invasion of Iraq, and she has publicly stated that the war has made the world a less safe place.

* However, following the invasion, a corps of army engineers was sent by New Zealand to help with reconstruction in the country.