Panic in New Zealand as first PR poll looms

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New Zealand, scene of the developed world's most radical economic reforms over the last 12 years, is about to undergo an equally dramatic political experiment.

The country steps into the political unknown in just under four weeks with the first general election under proportional representation, after ditching the Westminster first-past-the-post system of the past 140 years.

Most voters have little idea how the system will work and even less clue as to the shape of the new government after the poll on 12 October. The only certainty is that the stranglehold on power the conservative National and Labour Parties have enjoyed for the last 58 years is over.

The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany, adapted for use here after a referendum in 1992, was designed to give minor parties more seats in parliament, so a coalition is inevitable - and no party is likely ever again to be able to push through unpopular radical reforms resembling those of the last decade.

There is no doubt New Zealand First and the NZ Alliance will increase the four and two seats they held respectively in the old 99-member House of Representatives. Either could hold the balance of power in the expanded 120-seat parliament.

The electorate's dilemma is that the party leaders are all refusing to spell out who they might work with until the election is over. The confusion is compounded by the fact that voters will have two votes - one for a constituency candidate and the other for a party. The party vote alone will decide the make-up of parliament, a fact that two-thirds of voters do not understand, according to a recent poll, which indicated that people were likely to vote on traditional lines for the candidate from their favoured party and cast their other ballot for another party as a second choice.

This revelation caused panic in the ranks of Prime Minister Jim Bolger's ruling National Party, which leads all the opinion polls but not by a big enough margin to form a government on its own. "National needs your party vote very badly indeed," Mr Bolger told supporters at his formal campaign launch on Sunday. The National Party, which has governed since 1990, also badly needs a coalition partner other than the United Party whose seven MPS (formed by National Party MPs) have propped it up since July 1995.

Old party allegiances mean nothing in the new political environment. New parties have been formed and more than a dozen MPs have changed sides over the last couple of years in preparation for MMP.

Helen Clark, leader of the Labour Party, which is challenged by NZ First for second place in the polls, rules out a coalition with National. Mr Bolger says that he will talk to anyone.