Third-Party Candidates Gain in New Zealand

Disgruntled voters turn to new faces after economic woes, cutbacks

TWENTY months ago, the people of Mt. Roskill, New Zealand sent an angry rebuke to their usual favorite, the then-ruling Labor Party, and voted for the conservative National Party.

If an election were held today, many of those same voters say they would dump the National Party and vote for a third party.

"The people have been pummeled," says Robert King, an unemployed marine plumber and 30-year resident of this working-class suburb of Auckland.

Voters are furious with both parties because of tough economic policies which have deregulated industries, removed protective tariffs, and undermined labor unions. At the same time, both parties cut back social programs such as free health care and education, replacing them with "user pays" fees. The result has been a dramatically reduced workforce and a 10.5 percent national unemployment rate.

Bitter feelings are widespread.

"It's reflected in all polls regionally or nationally, whatever the timing," says Stephen Levine, a political scientist at Victoria University in Wellington. "There is a dislike of the government and the prime minister personally."

In an independent poll, conducted May 29, 66 percent of respondents did not think Prime Minister Jim Bolger was doing his job properly; only 27 percent were satisfied with his performance. Mr. Bolger has done much worse in other polls, receiving as low as 5 percent, which when compared to the margin of error has implied that perhaps no one approved of his performance.

Voter disillusionment has helped the Alliance, a group of political outcasts made up of Greens, Liberals, Maori natives, and Democrats. Led by Jim Anderton, leader of the New Labor Party and the only Alliance member of parliament, the group has received as much as 17 percent support in opinion polls.

The Alliance has put together a platform that includes a return to New Zealand's 1960s style of socialism: free education and medical service, a "social wage" package, and increased spending on housing. Mr. Anderton says his economic plan would put 70,000 to 90,000 Kiwis back to work.

"We can't say we'll put everyone back to work," Anderton told the Monitor. "We promise only what we can deliver."

To fund his spending, Anderton would raise the maximum tax rate from its current 33 percent to 40 percent. He estimates his plan, if enacted this year, would run up a budget deficit of $3.7 billion (New Zealand; US$2 billion) a $440 million increase over the current budget deficit. But he would have generated real growth of 2 percent, he says, compared to Bolger's negative growth.

Anderton's policies appeal to the disillusioned. Mr. King at Mt. Roskill says he may vote for New Labor in the next election. Two other voters say they too will vote for a third party.

New Zealanders will not stick with the Alliance, says Mike Moore, leader of the opposition Labor Party. "The only credible group is the Greens," he adds, "and they are not a party but a mood." Mr. Moore's challenge is winning back the disenchanted voters. He says he will do this by avoiding promises he does not think he can keep.

"The people want to hear them but I won't make them," he says in an interview. He is trying to project a positive image by holding down his criticism of the government. As far as policy is concerned, he says Labor will never return to the socialistic days. "People are amazed, but we are pro-business," he says.

The one politician to rise in the polls is Winston Peters, a rogue member of the National Party. Mr. Peters antagonized fellow party members a month ago when he alleged on Australian television that a prominent businessman had offered him campaign funding in return for his future cooperation.

Bolger told Peters to substantiate the charge. After Peters gave a meandering reply in parliament, some members wanted to expel him from the party. This only helped Peters in the polls with an electorate distrustful of the main-line politicians.

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