New Zealand prime minister fights for political life

March 4th, 2008 - 10:08 am ICT by admin  

Wellington, March 4 (DPA) New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark - after nearly nine years in office one of the longest-surviving leaders in the developed world - is gearing up for the fight of her political life against a greenhorn politician bent on ousting her this election year. If the opinion polls are correct, Clark, 58, a Labour Party member of parliament since 1981, is heading for a humiliating thrashing at the hands of John Key, 46, who became leader of the opposition conservative National Party only 16 months ago.

A poll in the New Zealand Herald Monday showed 54.5 percent of voters favouring the Nationals with Labour trailing on 36.5 percent. A TV3 poll put the opposition ahead by 51-35 percent.

Both would give Key a majority in the House of Representatives, creating a one-party government for the first time since a new proportional representation voting system made coalitions seemingly inevitable four elections ago in 1996.

The election does not have to be held until November but the preliminary campaign has been underway for months and Clark, a wily politician who like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has been dubbed the “toughest man in the cabinet”, is conceding nothing.

“I haven’t got the slightest intention of cruising to defeat,” she said Monday, claiming “a tremendous amount of volatility” in the polls.

The fight is being waged between two very different people.

Politics has ruled Clark’s life. She became a lecturer in political studies while completing her master’s degree, admits she married only because it appeared necessary to get elected and is childless by choice because she is a political workaholic. A lifetime socialist, she never hides her contempt for rich conservative opponents, who she has called “loathsome people”.

Key, a married father of two, is the richest man in the New Zealand parliament after making a fortune in London as a foreign currency dealer with American Merrill Lynch bank in the 1990s before returning home to be elected to parliament in 2002.

He is actually a poor boy made good, brought up by his mother in a state house after his alcoholic father died when he was six, but he remains in Labour eyes what Clark’s deputy prime minister Michael Cullen has called “a rich prick”.

Commentators say the opinion polls are driven more by voters’ boredom with Labour and simple desire for change than by the Nationals’ policies, which under Key have smacked of “me-tooism” rather than innovation.

Key has moved to adopt all Labour’s popular policies, including the anti-nuclear stance that prompted the US to strip New Zealand’s traditional formal ally status 23 years ago, and seems content to let Labour lose the election rather than campaign to win it.

Clark, the first Labour leader to win three consecutive elections, has antagonised many voters with liberal policies allowing civil marriages for gays, outlawing parental smacking and legalising prostitution.

A new law to stop outsiders like the Exclusive Brethren religious cult secretly financing political parties’ election campaigns - as it tried to do for the Nationals in 2005 - has been dubbed an anti-democratic clamp on free speech.

One leftist columnist has launched a public campaign urging Labour to dump Clark in favour of Trade Minister Phil Goff as the party’s only chance of winning the election.

Irked at questions about the polls, Clark, who is probably the most serious and dedicated politician in the parliament, told Monday’s weekly news conference, “At some time the phony war has to stop and the opposition has to start issuing some policy.

“And then, I think, the fun begins.”

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