Poll panic hits New Zealand

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

The country steps into the political unknown on 12 October 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. The only certainty is that the stranglehold on power the conservative National and Labour Parties have enjoyed for the past 58 years is over.

The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany was designed to give minor parties more seats, so a coalition is inevitable.

New Zealand First and the NZ Alliance are certain to 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. 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. The party, which has governed since 1990, also needs a coalition partner other than the United Party whose seven MPS (formed by National Party MPs) have propped it up since July 1995.