Bolger remains NZ's unpopular choice: The leader of the National Party is widely detested, but is still likely to retain power today, writes David Barber in Wellington

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The Independent Online
IF THE opinion polls are correct New Zealand's voters will today return to power the man they consider the least inspiring, least intelligent and most likely to break his promises of the four party leaders contesting the election.

Although three out of five voters say they want a change, Jim Bolger's conservative National Party is expected to win another three-year term. This would be a remarkable turnaround: Mr Bolger has recorded the lowest popularity rating of any New Zealand prime minister and his party stands accused of wanting to dismantle the country's welfare system, once one of the most comprehensive in the world.

Voters are equally disillusioned, however, with Labour, the main opposition party. Its leader, Mike Moore, is well ahead of Mr Bolger as the nation's preferred prime minister, but he is likely to fall short of the overall 6.1 per cent swing needed for victory because of the rise of two new parties, led by Labour and National dissidents. These are expected to split the anti- government vote while winning only two or three seats between them.

The polls show National holding about 40 per cent of the total vote, enough to give it a majority of between five and 13 in the new 99-seat parliament. The party had an overall majority of 29 in the old 97-seat House.

After winning with the biggest majority in New Zealand history in 1990, National's support slumped within months to the lowest ever for a party in power as it cut welfare benefits and froze pensions. Had an election been held only five months ago National would have been wiped out.

But the government's fortunes picked up as the economy showed signs of recovering after a long recession. Inflation is lower than in any other industrial country and mortgage rates are falling. In a campaign dominated by economic issues Mr Bolger, campaigning on the slogan 'Don't mess with success', appears to have convinced voters that the recovery would be jeopardised by a change of government.

Mr Moore claims the National Party has been captured by right-wing extremists bent on demolishing the last vestiges of the welfare state, 'Americanising' the health system and content to accept 10 per cent unemployment. But he appears to have failed to woo back enough traditional Labour voters to win power. These appear to have gone to the NZ Alliance, led by a former Labour MP, Jim Anderton, who has campaigned on an old-fashioned socialist platform including tax rises for the wealthy to restore the welfare state.

Even if National wins, the future of New Zealand politics could be changed by a referendum on electoral reform taking place at the same time as the general election. The question is whether to ditch the Westminster system of voting at the next election in 1996 in favour of proportional representation. This would put more minority party members into parliament and raise the prospect of coalition governments.

The referendum campaign has been intense and polls show that voters are almost evenly divided on the issue, which will be decided by a simple majority.

The referendum is of crucial importance to the Alliance and the other minority party, New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters, a rebel National cabinet minister. Both Mr Peters and Mr Anderton have fought formidable campaigns, but despite fanciful claims neither is likely to win more than a seat or two under the existing first-past-the- post constituency voting system.

The German alternative on offer in the referendum, called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), apportions seats in Parliament on the basis of the percentage of the national vote won by each party. This would give one or other of the smaller parties a strong chance of sharing power in 1996.

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