WELLINGTON, New Zealand – New Zealanders chose a wealthy, conservative former financier Saturday to help navigate the country through the global financial meltdown, handing long-serving left-wing Prime Minister Helen Clark a crushing election defeat.
John Key, the 47-year-old leader of the conservative National Party, swept easily to power in this South Pacific country of 4.1 million people, ousting Clark’s Labour Party after nine years in office.
“Today, New Zealand has spoken, in their hundreds of thousands, they have voted for change,” Key told supporters at a packed victory celebration in the country’s largest city, Auckland.
New Zealand’s farming export-dependent economy fell into recession early this year, and Key said the worldwide downturn is the most immediate problem for the country.
“The global financial crisis means that the road ahead may well be a rocky one,” Key said. “Tomorrow, the hard work begins.”
Before being elected to parliament in 2002, multimillionaire Key was a currency trader at Merrill Lynch, working in the United States and Singapore.
Key has promised a more right-leaning government than Clark’s, which for almost a decade made global warming a key policy issue.
In a country where the environment is a mainstream political issue, Key has vowed to wind back Clark’s greenhouse gas emission trading scheme to protect businesses from financial losses, and to reduce red tape he says entangles important dam projects.
Clark, who was seeking a historic fourth term that would have pushed her rule past a dozen years, accepted responsibility for a crushing loss by quitting as Labour’s leader – effectively retiring to obscurity.
She blamed a “time-for-a-change factor and that took us out with the tide” for the election loss.
Key will not need the support of the indigenous Maori Party, which won five seats but will not hold the balance of power. He said he would reach out to the Maori Party anyway and seek their support in Parliament.