With seven months before a general election, New Zealand politics are in the most unpredictable state ever. On paper Prime Minister Robert D. Muldoon's conservative National Party should win, but a political phenomenon called Social Credit, the perennial "Cinderella" party of New Zealand politics, has emerged to confound party strategists and political observers alike.
Mr. Muldoon still looks like the best bet, even after weathering the stormiest seas in one of the most turbulent careers in New Zealand politics. But Social Credit, a party of committed to throwing out traditional economic theories, could hold the balance of power in the 92-seat Parliament on Nov. 28, Election Day.
Latest opinion polls merely confirm Social Credit's stable place in the political spectrum. A poll published April 23 showed the National Party with 38 .7 percent support, the Labour Party with 31.5 percent, and Social Credit with 29.4 percent.
More ominous, however, is voters' reaction to the question: "Would you seriously consider voting Social Credit at the end of the year?" Half the eligible voters said yes.
That adds up to trouble for the two major parties. What it could mean on Nov. 28 is Social Credit holding enough seats to deny either major party an absolute majority. The government of the day would be hard-pressed to govern effectively.
There are several reasons why Social Credit, which follows the same economic principals as the long-ruling Social Credit government in British Columbia, has gripped one-third of eligible New Zealand voters.
The main problem for the National and the major opposition Labour parties, (National has 50 seats, Labour 40, and Social Credit 2 in Parliament) is a gross disenchantment with their policies and performances.
National and Labour added to their woes with messy leadership battles late last year and early this year.
During a six-week overseas trip in 1980, a group of National Party members of Parliament, lead by a quartet known as "the colonels," plotted Mr. Muldoon's downfall after five years as undisputed leader.
But Mr. Muldoon fought the battle, and won. Subsequently he "reshuffled" his 18- man Cabinet to reward his loyal lieutenants and punish "the colonels." Mr. Muldoon received a vote of confidence on Oct. 23 and has emerged stronger and more assertive than ever.
On the other side, Labour's quiet, unassuming leader Wallace (Bill) Rowling survived a challenge to his leadership by one vote -- his own. Mr. Rowling will lead Labour into the election, but he is seen as a liability rather than an asset in picking up the thousands of disenchanted New Zealanders who say they will vote for Social Credit to the lackluster performance of National and Labour.
In the opinion of shrewd National Party president George Chapman, this could lead to another election early in 1982. Mr. Chapman, the chief National Party strategist, argues Social Credit is a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and has been trying to rally his troops, many of whom are deserting National for Social Credit.
For Mr. Muldoon the Social Credit phenomenon presents an unusual dilemma. His aggressive leadership style is one reason traditional National voters won't support the government, yet he is committed to maintaining that style because of its broad populist appeal.
In times of economic hardship, as New Zealand is enduring, voters turn to the strong man; the man who can face the tough decisions and make them.
For Mr. Rowling the dilemma is to convince New Zealanders it is not leadership style that counts, but new policies to get the country "back on its feet" that are important.
Meanwhile Social Credit, led by Bruce Beetham, is keeping its head down, avoiding detailed discussion of its rather vague monetary policies, and keeping its nose clean.
At present that policy is working, but as they say in New Zealand poli tics these days, "Seven months is a long time."