Halfway through his third term of office, New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who is clinging to a one-seat majority in Parliament, finds himself facing an electoral challenge from an unusual quarter.
The challenger is former personal friend Robert E. Jones, a real-estate millionaire, author, and boxing commentator who used to be a large contributor to Mr. Muldoon's conservative National Party.
Bob Jones is the guiding light behind the newly formed New Zealand Party, though he denies that it is ''his'' party. But there is little doubt that he has supplied much of the party's funds.
The new party's goal is to change the policies of Muldoon's government, which must stand for reelection next year. Muldoon, Jones says, has lost his way as a leader of the private-enterprise-oriented alternative to socialism in New Zealand. The country is a pioneer welfare state of 3 million people isolated on two main islands in the South Pacific.
Muldoon's main opposition is the Labour Party, now led by David Lange following the retirement of three-time election loser Sir Wallace Rowling.
The third party in Parliament is Social Credit, a shadowy spinoff of similarly named parties in British Columbia. Opinion polls show dwindling support for the party, which has only two seats in Parliament.
So it looked like a two-horse race for the November 1984 vote - until August, when Bob Jones, tired of what he saw as the National Party's dereliction of duties toward the right, launched his New Zealand Party with the slogan ''Freedom and Prosperity.''
Muldoon's National Party ''continues to give lip service to its principles of freedom, while in practice introducing the most authoritarian government this nation has ever experienced,'' Jones says.
The National Party has through its years of rule progressively added to the welfare state, providing free education and health treatment, as well as subsidies and other aid for the farmers on whose efforts the nation's economy is based. At the same time, it has acquired a stranglehold over economic activity, some say.
Jones, an old-style free enterpriser, and his new party would cut all government spending, except on education, by eliminating unemployment benefits and cutting welfare payments. Describing prevailing taxation rates - 66 percent on all incomes over $38,000 - as ''so grossly excessive as to comprise a threat to individual liberty,'' the party pledged an overhaul of tax methods.
The New Zealand Party is also committed to withdrawing from the ANZUS mutual defense treaty linking Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Noting that New Zealand is the most geographically isolated nation in the world, Jones' party questions the validity of spending some $470 million ($700 million in New Zealand currency) a year on defense and favours reduced spending with an emphasis on homeland defense and naval and air force territorial surveillance.
The new party has a million-dollar budget in its first year - a considerable campaign chest in New Zealand politics.
Unperturbed by the lack of success of new and minority parties in New Zealand politics over the last 20 years, Jones merely shrugs and says: ''The National Party is not sacrosanct. Wait and see.
''There is only one way National can both survive and defeat us, and that is by adopting our policies. That would be a victory for us,'' he says.