New Zealand's opposition leader Don Brash -- who supports dismantling the country's nuclear free laws and opposes special privileges for indigenous Maori people -- was leading the early vote counting in yesterday's general election.
With half the votes tabulated, the Chief Electoral office said Brash's National Party had 41 percent, while two-term incumbent Prime Minister Helen Clark's Labour Party had 39 percent.
The electoral office forecast that National would finish with 51 seats -- well up from the 27 seats it held in the last parliament -- and Labour would have 47.
"It's a big swing to the right if it holds up," Labour strategist Pete Hodgson told National Radio.
With the race looking like it will go down to the wire, both major parties may still be able to form government if they can cobble together a coalition with minor parties. Peter Dunne, leader of the United Future Party that was expected to win four seats and offer support to National, said that "there does seem to be a mood for change taking place."
Brash, a 64-year-old economist and former central bank governor, has said that if he wins power, he would be prepared to dismantle New Zealand's 20-year-old nuclear-free laws to help pave the way for a free trade deal with the US -- although he would first seek approval for the move in a referendum. He also would scrap a raft of special privileges aimed at impoverished Maori, which he has condemned as "state-sponsored separatism."
New Zealand's laws banning nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered vessels have strained relations between Washington and Wellington since they were enacted in 1985.
Clark says she is appalled at the prospect of Brash scrapping them.
"We can take pride ... in being nuclear free," Clark said in a final recorded television address to the nation Friday night, "and in having the strength and independence not to send our young people off to fight in unjust wars."
The comments were a clear reference to her vocal opposition to US President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Clark said she was feeling "very optimistic" after voting. Since coming to power in 1999, Clark has presided over a booming economy helped by strong prices for agricultural exports and a surge in tourism. Unemployment is at a 30-year low of 3.7 percent and the budget has grown strongly each year Clark has been in office. On Friday she urged voters not to change a good thing.
Brash, who led New Zealand's central bank for 15 years before entering politics, accuses Labour of not capitalizing on the favorable economic conditions. He has vowed to slash taxes and cut fuel prices in moves he says will reward New Zealanders for their work and stimulate the economy.
The policy that's drawn the most fire for Brash is his pledge to cut welfare and social programs aimed exclusively at the country's indigenous Maori and abolish seven seats set aside for them in parliament.
"For us having a single standard of citizenship for all New Zealanders irrespective of race remains a very important objective indeed," Brash said Friday.
Maori, a minority of 530,000, are among the poorest, least-educated and worst-housed citizens in this nation of 4 million, and make up half the prison population.
A newly formed Maori Party was expected to win a handful of seats yesterday and could help Clark stay in her post by agreeing to support her party in parliament.