WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — NEW Zealand's Labour government, which a week ago looked certain to lose next month's general elections, is back in the race after selecting its third prime minister in 13 months. Mike Moore, an old-style Labour politician with working-class credentials, took over last Tuesday, just 52 days before voters go to the polls on Oct. 27. The change marked a desperate 11th hour bid by the Labour Party to keep power.
Until last week, opinion polls showed that Labour, which currently has 56 seats in the 97-seat Parliament, trailed the opposition by about 30 points. Fresh polls indicate that while Labour still has a lot of ground to make up under Mr. Moore (at 41 years of age he is New Zealand's youngest prime minister), there will be no landslide. And the contest may run neck and neck.
Labour's antinuclear policy during its six years in office nettled the United States, but the opposition National Party has adopted the same stance. The election will not be fought on the antinuclear issue, but on economic policy. Moore will try to entice back Labour voters who have deserted in droves over the last six years.
Despite its socialist traditions, Labour has pursued a dramatic deregulation of what was one of the most regulated economies outside the Eastern Bloc. The result has been economic growth after years of stagnation, but at the price of unprecedented unemployment that still tops 7 percent. Labour's traditional supporters have been hardest hit. Moore claims that while he will not radically change current economic policy, he is dedicated to ensuring that the disadvantaged get their share of the prosperity he says is coming.
The National Party immediately launched a campaign with the theme, ``The Moore they change, the Moore they remain the same.''
National Party leader Jim Bolger, who a week ago was certain he would be the next prime minister, says changing personalities will not get Labour off the hook: ``There isn't a potential leader in the Labour Party who can escape responsibility for the distress that's been caused during their two [three-year] terms in government.''
Geoffrey Palmer, the former Labour prime minister, resigned when close Cabinet colleagues told him it was clear he could not lead Labour to victory. Mr. Palmer never captured the public's imagination after taking over from the colorful David Lange in August last year.
Moore claims that he has no illusions about the difficult task ahead. ``My life has been full of difficult situations,'' he says. ``I'm a battler.'' He has made no secret of his poverty-stricken background. He has told how the family home next to a river was flooded every winter. Holes were drilled in the floor to let the water out. Moore left school at age 15 to work as a bricklayer's laborer and joined the Labour Party a year later. A voracious reader, he educated himself, hitchhiked around the world twice, and was elected to Parliament at age 23, New Zealand's second youngest member of Parliament ever.