Wellington, New Zealand — New Zealand is facing it's greatest leadership crisis in years. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's own party is mounting something of a palace revolution -- contesting his leadership style.
Fifty members of Parliament in New Zealand's governing National Party will decide Thursday if Mr. Muldoon should stay and lead them into the November 1981 election or whether it will opt for the more moderate style of Deputy Prime Minister Brian Talboys.
Party members summoned Mr. Talboys back from a crucial trip to Europe, on which he was pressing New Zealand's case for better access to the European Economic Community, for the political battle.
The issue is Mr. Muldoon's abrasive style -- whether the party should stick with him and campaign for a third term, or whether it should pay attention to the mood of the country, which seems to be tired of personality politics. It may go with the quieter, more reasoned approach offered by Mr. Talboys.
Many New Zealanders are watching the challenge to Mr. Muldoon unfold with great surprise. He was the strong man of the government, the man everyone feared. It was thought his position, after two successful elections, was unchallengeable.
But politics in New Zealand have been turbulent in recent months, especially since a crucial by-election in the wealthy electorate of East Coast Bays in Auckland.
The Seat was traditionally National. It was held by Frank Gill, a close leiutenant of Mr. Muldoon who became New Zealand's ambassador to the US earlier this year.
Mr. Muldoon obviously thought the by-election would bring a victory for National. But it went all wrong. Voters expressed dissatisfaction with both the National and Labor parties, and voted in a candidate of the Social Credit Political League. The league won its Credit Political League. The league won its second seat in the 92-member parliament.
The National Party was devastated and Mr. Muldoon became the scapegoat. The prime minister was on a six-week trip overseas at the time, so it was not until Oct. 16 the the leadership challenge materialized.
Mr. Talboys was also overseas, so a final vote was postponed until he returned home.
This Thursday is the crunch day.
The by-election in Auckland has made many MPs sitting on slim majorities nervous about elections. At week's beginning Mr. Muldoon looked in danger of being removed.
The result of this political stew really depends on Mr. Talboys, who has not sought the job. If colleagues call on him, however, it appears he will answer in the affirmative.