The fledgling Maori party was poised yesterday to play a leading role in determining New Zealand's next government after a cliffhanger election.
The election night results Saturday gave Helen Clark's ruling Labour Party 50 seats and the main opposition National Party 49 in the 122-seat parliament, forcing both parties into a a scramble for support from six minor parties holding the remaining 23 seats.
Because of historical differences, both Labour and National would want to avoid dealing with the 15-month old Maori Party if they can. But they may be forced to seek the support of its legislators if rifts between other potential coalition partners cannot be healed.
Tariana Turia formed the Maori Party as an independent voice for New Zealand's indigenous people, who make up about 15 percent of the population.
She resigned from Labour last year over its legislation to block a court ruling that Maori had a right to claim foreshore and seabed areas.
But the party also has little in common with National, which wants to do away with the seven seats set aside for Maori.
Turia was adamant she would not be approaching either Clark or National leader Don Brash. "I think if they want to talk they will call us," she said.
Turia, 61, sees Labour's actions as a betrayal of traditional Maori support for the Labour Party, worse in some ways than the National Party's plans.
"One of them, at least, has stabbed us in the front and the other has stabbed us in the back. Now [our people] see them as being as bad as each other," she said recently.
Clark, who said before the election that she regards the Maori Party as "the last cab off the rank", could form a government if she can command the support of the small United Future and New Zealand First parties.
But both are opposed to working with her main ally, the Greens. If that rift cannot be healed she will have to hail the last cab, and the cab might not be too keen to come.
Turia's co-leader, academic Pita Sharples, has not ruled out talks with National if National is "desperate" -- and if it is desperate, it might have to backtrack on its Maori seats policy.
With emotions running high, Maori Party president Whatarangi Winiata has condemned actions by the two main parties as a move to abrogate the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and Britain.
New Maori MP Hone Harawira has compared the policies of Brash to those of Adolf Hitler.