New Zealand Voters Have Change in Mind

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LESLEY Kainamu has always been a Labour voter. But this time she is voting for the National Party. ``Look at the young ones sitting around here, they should be working,'' she says outside a shopping center in this suburb of Auckland.

Because voters like Mrs. Kainamu are switching parties, the ruling Labour government can no longer count on such normally safe seats. Instead, Mike Moore, the prime minister, is campaigning to try to woo back such traditional Labour voters before the election on Oct. 27.

It is an uphill battle for Mr. Moore, who has trailed the National Party's Jim Bolger in the polls during the six-week campaign. On Sept. 4, Moore took over from Geoffrey Palmer, whose aloof style had put him far behind in the polls. Now, with the election only days away, Moore remains 7 to 12 points behind.

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The economy is the key issue. Since 1984, the jobless rate has doubled to 11.5 percent, with 190,000 people currently out of work. Overseas debt has soared and imports far outpace exports. The Reserve Bank has maintained the New Zealand dollar's value by keeping interest rates high. ``The economy is in real trouble - the business community is terribly depressed,'' says Len Bayliss, an economist with Integrated Economic Services, a Wellington-based consulting firm.

This economic slide has badly tarnished Labour, which has maintained that its policies would turn the economy around. ``They have used up their credibility,'' says Steve Hoadley, an Auckland University professor of political studies.

No one would agree more than Fred Barker, a retired truck driver and traditional Labour voter. ``It is a government of traitors,'' announces Mr. Barker, a socialist. He ticks off the reasons he is unhappy: The government is selling off the country's assets, it is cutting the budgets at the universities, and it is raising fees for medical services. ``They promised not to sack [lay off] anyone and then did it,'' he says. As a protest, Barker has decided not to vote.

Such disenchantment has opened the door for scores of splinter parties. There are 26 political parties running for 97 seats. Although most of these parties are unlikely to win many seats from the ruling Labour Party or the National Party, they may make a difference in some of the closer contests. The Green Party, for example, is polling up to 6 percent of the vote.

If neither party can collect a majority in Parliament, it may give more influence to minor parties that get elected.

Raelene Bennett says she intends to vote for the Green Party for this reason. ``The Greens will have the ability to sway results,'' says Ms. Bennett, a marketer for a fitness products company.

To try to win back voters, Moore has focused on his abilities as the former trade minister. ``He's our best negotiator,'' claim his ads. In an effort to broaden his appeal, his speeches emphasize his modest upbringing.

Moore's campaign, however, has been disorganized. He frequently makes last-minute changes in his schedule, with the result that few people show up at his events. In the campaign's closing days, Moore claimed the National Party would change the country's antinuclear stance. Mr. Bolger denied the charge. At a debate Oct. 24, however, Bolger said, ``We want a security understanding with the United States that is satisfactory to both sides.''

Bolger has maintained an organized campaign, venturing into marginal districts to try to add to his lead. His speeches are low key and filled with promised policy changes. If elected, Bolger says he will add 900 new bobbies to the police force to crack down on rising crime. He also maintains a hard line on welfare recipients.

Bolger's personality has become part of the campaign. ``He's too smug,'' says Irene Joyce, a resident of Roskill, an Auckland suburb. But Rod Alley, a political studies professor at Victoria University in Wellington, says Bolger appeals to small town values. ``He's steady, reliable and he has more fiber than most people think.''

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