WELLINGTON • New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English is poised to become the country's next prime minister after his two challengers pulled out of the race to succeed Mr John Key.
Local media had earlier reported that the 54-year-old Mr English had majority support within the ruling National Party caucus.
As the numbers mounted in favour of Mr English, whom Mr Key named as his preferred successor when he resigned suddenly earlier this week, Police Minister Judith Collins, 57, and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, 50, withdrew their nominations.
Ms Collins said it had become clear that Mr English had the support of half the 59-member caucus.
"As far as I'm concerned, he has won," Ms Collins told reporters in Wellington. "I would like to say to my supporters that we should get in behind him and support Bill as the leader."
TOO SOON TO SAY
I won't be talking about being a prime minister until I am one. This has all happened pretty fast; it's really only three days since John Key stood down, so I haven't really had time to reflect on it.
NEW ZEALAND DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER BILL ENGLISH, on taking over from Prime Minister John Key.
The snap race for the top job was prompted by Mr Key's sudden resignation on Monday. Mr Key, 55, had been New Zealand's leader since 2008, heading the ruling National Party over a period marked by political stability and economic reform.
Mr English, who is also Finance Minister, said he won't become premier until the party caucus formally endorses him on Dec 12.
"I won't be talking about being a prime minister until I am one," he told reporters. "This has all happened pretty fast; it's really only three days since John Key stood down, so I haven't really had time to reflect on it."
The party's 59 parliamentarians must still elect a new deputy leader when they meet next week, with Transport Minister Simon Bridges and State Services Minister Paula Bennett both seeking the role.
Mr English declined to express a preference, but said Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce will take up his finance portfolio.
Mr English, a father of six and a former farmer, welcomed the fact that Ms Collins and Mr Coleman had initially put themselves forward for the leadership, saying the resulting debate would help the government to "reset" after Mr Key's departure.
While he inherits a party riding high in the polls, much of the party's popularity during its last eight years in office is also attributable to Mr Key, whose common touch and pragmatic approach endeared him to the political middle ground.
Mr English refused to be drawn on the timing of an election, due late next year, amid speculation the party may prefer an earlier poll.
Presenting a half-year Budget update yesterday, he said tax cuts remain an option.
A less charismatic politician than Mr Key, Mr English is nevertheless credited with returning the government's books to surplus and introducing a new targeted approach to social spending.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG