WINSTON PETERS is a pugnacious, table-thumping populist. He is a straight-talking lawyer who favors Italian suits. He grew up poor and now champions blue-collar causes. He is half-Scot, half-native Maori.
And if there is to be a Maori prime minister, then ``Winston Peters will clearly be it,'' says former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon.
During the last 12 months, opinion polls have consistently ranked Mr. Peters as the politician Kiwis would most prefer as prime minister. Last month, Peters was nudged out of top-spot contention spot by the Labour Party's new prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, and by the hoopla surrounding David Lange's sudden resignation. But political pundits suspect that Peters won't be eclipsed for long.
The ascent of this conservative National Party member of Parliament coincides with the rising prominence of Maori issues and the debilitating effects of economic recession during much of the Labour Party's five years in office.
The native Maoris constitute about 14 percent of the population and the bulk of the jobless. But the Labour government has taken significant steps to redress long-standing Maori grievances and to offer hope for economic self-sufficiency.
A quasi-government tribunal is now judging claims by Maori tribes for about 50 percent of New Zealand's land mass. Already, based on new legal interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi, extensive fishing rights worth millions of dollars are being returned to Maori tribes.
But the moves are provoking resentment among some white New Zealanders. As National's opposition spokesman on Maori Affairs and Employment, Peters lambastes Labour's actions.
``Mr. Palmer has exacerbated race relations and heightened European anxiety. At the same time, he's heightened Maori expectations beyond any hope of fulfillment,'' says Peters in a Monitor interview.
``We could have all the fish, all the forest, and all the land back, and still 58 percent of our prison population will be Maori males. ... We will still have this 4-to-1 disparate rate of achievement in education. We'll still have Maori unemployment rates at 2.5 to 3 times that of Europeans. What will have changed?''
Some Maori leaders criticize Peters as being the National Party's ``Maori basher.'' They say he's bent on ruining the best opportunity in 149 years for Maori social and economic equality and fueling racial tensions by pandering to the ``rednecks.''
Like the portraits in his office of namesake Winston Churchill and a battered but unbending boxer, Peters doesn't shy away from a fight. ``The Maori liberals and academics who express an opinion about me couldn't fill a telephone booth with their supporters,'' he snaps.
Peters criticizes Maori leaders for a preoccupation with the past. Maoris seeking a self-sufficient economic future, should seek education, he says, not lower standards or special education programs for the Maoris. As a self-made man, he says Maoris seeking equality in New Zealand society should strive for achievement.
``It's no use saying we're not going to be part of the education system because its honkie or Pakeha (``whites'' in Maori) or European. Education is international. And we must be prepared to compete to the highest international standards regardless of background or culture,'' he says.
Peters follows the Nationals' line of supporting a return to the ANZUS Pact, the Australia-New Zealand-United States defense treaty ruptured by New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy. But he suggests holding a binding referendum on ANZUS (``so the policy doesn't change with every new government'') and let New Zealanders decide the policy directly.
Still, for all of his popularity, Peters is not yet a contender for the prime ministership. He does not have the party support, at the moment, to challenge National Party leader Jim Bolger. Peters isn't even the deputy party leader. As long as the National Party held a wide lead over the the Labour Party in opinion polls, it saw no need to change its election due before October of next year.
But National's popularity has dropped recently. A strengthened economy and new prime minister are credited with the improvement in Labour support. Political analysts say if Mr. Bolger's voter popularity rating remains low and Peters' stays high, a challenge could be mounted.
Steve Hoadley, assistant professor of political studies, Auckland University, says, ``If the National Party wants an exciting figure, they'll grasp at Peters. He's the wild card in the deck.''