WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealanders went to the polls today in an election that could redefine the country’s policy on nuclear weapons and its relationship with the United States.
National Party leader Don Brash, a 64-year-old economist and former central bank governor, has said he would be prepared to dismantle New Zealand’s 20-year-old nuclear-free laws to help prepare the way for a free trade deal with Washington – although he first would seek approval for the move in a referendum.
Brash also would scrap a raft of special privileges for the indigenous Maori people. He has criticized the measures for the impoverished Maori as “state-sponsored separatism.”
Nuclear laws have strained relations between Washington and Wellington since they were enacted in 1985, leading to New Zealand’s being frozen out of a defense treaty with the United States and Australia.
Two-term Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark says she is appalled at the prospect of Brash ending the nuclear provisions.
“We can take pride … in being nuclear free and in having the strength and independence not to send our young people off to fight in unjust wars,” Clark said in a televised address to the nation Friday night.
Her comments were a clear reference to her vocal opposition to President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
About 2,700 polling booths across the nation opened with analysts expecting good weather and a close race for power to bring a strong turnout among the 2.83 million registered voters.
Clark – who voted an hour after polls opened in her electorate in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland – refused to send troops to participate in the invasion without U.N. approval but later dispatched army engineers to help rebuild the shattered country and Afghanistan.
Political analysts and pollsters who have charted erratic swings in support for both Labour and National consider the vote for parliament’s 120 seats too close to call.
After Saturday’s vote, both Clark and Brash likely will try to negotiate with minor parties to stitch together a workable coalition – and that process could take weeks.
Since coming to power in 1999, Clark has presided over a booming economy helped by strong prices for agricultural exports and a surge in tourism sparked by the blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy that showcased the country’s spectacular scenery.
Unemployment is at a 30-year low of 3.7 percent, and the budget has grown each year Clark has been in office. Her message Friday to the estimated 12 percent of the country’s 2.83 million voters who were still undecided: Don’t change a good thing.