September 17, 2005

New Zealand PM Clark claws back lead in vote count

By Paul Tait

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Helen
Clark was poised to form an historic third successive
government after her Labour Party clawed its way back past
opposition National in a nail-biting election on Saturday.

Clark's Labour Party was just ahead after the close of
counting late on Saturday but a number of possible outcomes
remained after one of the closest elections in New Zealand's
history, including a hung parliament.

"This election has been very finely balanced and the result
has been a close one, and I'm humbled that we have the
opportunity to begin negotiations to form a new government,"
Clark told jubilant party supporters.

However, days, perhaps weeks, of political horse-trading
lay ahead as Clark and conservative National leader Don Brash
hold talks with potential coalition partners among the six
minor parties that won seats in parliament.

Clark remains as caretaker leader until a new government is
sworn in. She would be the first Labour leader to head three
successive governments.

When final counts were received from all polling stations
by about midnight (1200 GMT), Labour had 40.7 percent of the
vote compared with 39.6 percent for National.

That would translate into 50 seats for Labour in a 122-seat
parliament, down just one from the previous parliament,
compared with National's 49.

Former central bank governor Brash, a 64-year-old political
novice, refused to concede defeat but did not appear to have
enough potential coalition partners among the minor parties.

"We can't yet claim a victory but I'm certainly not
conceding defeat," Brash said after his National Party almost
doubled its vote from the 2002 election.

Both leaders spent a tense night at their home districts in
Auckland, which was hit by a security scare when a man hijacked
a light plane and threatened to crash it into the city's
328-meter (1,140-foot) Sky Tower.

The tower, on top of a large casino and hotel complex in
the center of New Zealand's biggest city, was evacuated. The
plane later crashed into the harbor.

The pilot was rescued and taken to hospital, where he was
being questioned by police, but his injuries were not
life-threatening, local media said.


Brash had campaigned strongly during a rough-and-tumble
campaign fought largely on local issues and his promises of
NZ$9 billion worth of personal income tax cuts over three years
almost pushed him across the line.

Clark had trumpeted her record of stable government and
economic growth averaging 4 percent over the past five years.

National opened a clear early lead in the counting after
polls closed at 7:00 p.m. (0700 GMT) but Labour gradually
clawed its way back as returns came in from urban centers such
as Auckland and the capital, Wellington.

National's improved performance was achieved at the expense
of other center-right parties such as ACT with which it might
have expected to form a coalition.

Labour could probably count on at least another seven seats
from the Green and Progressive parties and, as the biggest
single party, would look to United Future and New Zealand First
to offer it support on key financial and confidence issues.

New Zealand First and United Future won a combined 10
seats, while even the fledgling Maori Party and its four seats
could be called on by Labour.

However, after 2.05 million votes were counted on Saturday,
another 193,000 "special" votes remained to be counted. These
included absentee ballots and New Zealanders living overseas.

(With additional reporting by Gyles Beckford, Melanie
Carroll and Kazunori Takada)