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Prime Minister Key still facing hurdles New Zealand's one-horse personality race

11-24-2011 15:05 BJT

WELLINGTON, Nov. 24 (Xinhua) -- When most New Zealanders are going to the polls on Saturday, an estimated 135 of them will be leaving the country for good.

That's the average daily number of people who left the country for Australia in the year to the end of October.

While politicians are calling this election a referendum on several issues ranging from state asset sales to retirement ages many New Zealanders having been voting with their feet, according to official statistics released this week.

The devastating February earthquake that left at least 181 people dead in the second city of Christchurch and its continuing aftershocks is one of the main drivers, but a sluggish economy is another.

The exodus tells its own story of the country's trials since the last general election in 2008, but it also highlights how much this election has become a personality battle of the main party leaders with the incumbent maintaining a clear lead.

FLIGHT OF THE KIWIS

The center-right National Party, which has been ruling in a coalition with minor groups, including the Maori Party, the right wing ACT Party and United Future, came to power on a wave of dissatisfaction after nine years under the center-left Labour Party, governed by the stoical Helen Clark.

Prime Minister John Key, who then campaigned on the differences in average wages between New Zealand and its bigger neighbor Australia, is now seeking re-election under the irony that many of his fellow Kiwis are viewing Australia as a better place to stake their future.

According to New Zealand's Council of Trade Unions, the average hourly wage in New Zealand has risen by 7.5 percent since December 2008, while the Australian figure is up 14.4 percent over the same period.

Yet Key still looks likely to lead the next government, with some polls including one on Wednesday indicating he could lead New Zealand's first non-coalition government in a decade.

Key's perceived charisma has helped him through a series of embarrassments and problematic issues over this election campaign. While the polls show his party edging down slightly but still well ahead, his extraordinary lead as preferred prime minister has been constant.

A poll released by Fairfax Media Wednesday showed the National Party on 54-percent support, a full 28 points ahead of the main opposition Labour Party, while the Green Party came in third with 12 percent.

However, the choice of Key as preferred prime minister scored 51.5 percent, while Labour's Phil Goff trailed on 12.5 percent.

POPULIST TOUCH

The figures came after Key called in the police in a complaint about media that had obtained recordings of a "private" conversation between himself and a prospective MP from the minority ACT Party conducted in a staged display to influence the results of New Zealand's arcane mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) electoral system.

It was a significant ripple in the seemingly unflappable leader 's personality after he had been seen to have performed well in coping with some of New Zealand's worst disasters of recent times. Key has been remembered for providing a sympathetic and responsive government face during the Pike River Mine disaster, when 29 men died in November last year, and the Christchurch earthquake.

He deft populist touch has also been used to tap public enthusiasm for the nation's film industry so the government could quickly change labor laws to entice the Hollywood producers of The Hobbit to make their production in New Zealand.

Arguably the country's richest ever prime minister, Key, 50, rose from a childhood in state-owned housing to become a senior foreign exchange trader with Merrill Lynch and he sat on the Foreign Exchange Committee on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York before he entered politics in 2002.


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