For the first time in a Western democracy, two female party leaders are duelling for the nation's highest political office. Jenny Shipley, Prime Minister since 1997, is seeking her own mandate after deposing her predecessor, Jim Bolger, in mid-term. Helen Clark, the Labour leader, wants to wrest power from the National Party, which has governed New Zealand for the past nine years.
The contest is all the more intriguing for the fact that it is taking place in a country whose culture is soaked in the macho values of the Antipodes. This is, after all, a nation whose identity was forged by rugged sheep farmers, where homosexuality was illegal until a decade ago and where the rugby team's defeat in the World Cup last month occasioned a bout of national mourning.
Yet although New Zealand deserves its redneck reputation, it has also been in the vanguard of sexual egalitarianism. It was the first country to introduce the female franchise, in 1893, and more recently it has seen women attain the most senior positions in business and public life.
The nation's chief justice is a woman, Dame Sian Elias. Theresa Gattung is chief executive of Telecom, its biggest corporation, while the most popular and charismatic governor-general of recent years has been Dame Cath Tizard. When it comes to sexual equality, New Zealanders claim their country is far more enlightened than neighbouring Australia.
The two contenders for the top political job are chalk and cheese. Mrs Shipley, 47, New Zealand's first female prime minister, is a former South Island farmer's wife who entered politics after raising a family. Gregarious and self-confident, she likes nothing better than wading into a crowd and striking up a lively conversation with strangers.
Ms Clark, 49, opposition leader for six years, is a former student radical and political science lecturer from Auckland. An intellectual with a razor- sharp mind and a formidable grasp of detail, she is more reserved than Mrs Shipley and lacks popular appeal. Ill at ease amid the hurly burly of the campaign trail, she comes across best in more formal debates.
Another prominent female politician is Jeanette Fitzsimons, co-leader of the Green Party, which will play a pivotal role in post-election coalition negotiations, an inevitable consequence of the proportional representation system introduced in 1996.
New Zealand is keenly aware that it is making political history. The cover to an election supplement published by the Dominion newspaper in Wellington featured a large cartoon showing Mrs Shipley and Ms Clark squaring up in full combat gear.
The country appears to have matured since the last election, when Ms Clark ran against Mr Bolger and commentators made much of her drab clothes and unflattering hairstyle. This time, the focus is on the two women's leadership qualities and policy platforms, although both have undergone image "makeovers".
Both are tough operators. Mrs Shipley, nicknamed "the perfumed bulldozer" and sometimes likened to Margaret Thatcher, presided over ruthless health and social security cuts in the early 1990s. Ms Clark, like Mrs Shipley, deposed her predecessor, Mike Moore, in a coup; her detractors call her "a man without balls".
David Lange, the former Labour prime minister and now a political commentator, says that while New Zealand has made great strides towards achieving sexual equality, women can only succeed in politics by acting like men.
"Jenny Shipley has broader shoulders than most men, and she has seen off most of the men around her," he said. "She behaves in a very masculine, aggressive way in situations of conflict, and to that extent she mirrors New Zealand society. There is a pugnacity about her that appeals to the men in the public bar. Helen Clark has all the ability, experience and intellectual fortitude, but she has been hardened by years of political exile."
Both leaders have been at pains to avoid giving the impression that their policies are in any way moulded by traditionally female preoccupations.
That gender has been an issue at all in this election is largely thanks to Mrs Shipley, who often appears in public with her husband and two children at her side, in a transparent attempt to contrast herself with Ms Clark, who is childless and whose husband is rarely seen.
In a television commercial last week, Mrs Shipley declared, in relation to National's education policy: "I am a politician, but I'm a mum as well. I have the same hopes and concerns as other parents do."
In response, Ms Clark said she had "long since given up being irritated" by Mrs Shipley, and that not having children was her personal choice. The public wanted to know about the two leaders' policies, she said. "That's what they are interested in; not our family circumstances."Reuse content