WELLINGTON • The leaders of New Zealand's main parties prepared yesterday to start talks with Mr Winston Peters, the leader of a nationalist party who emerged as kingmaker after an inconclusive general election, but he indicated he was in no rush to pick a side.
Prime Minister Bill English's National Party won the largest number of votes in Saturday's general election, securing a comfortable margin over the Labour opposition after what had shaped up as one of the closest votes in recent history.
But it was Mr Peters and his often controversial New Zealand First Party who emerged in a position of power, with both National and Labour needing his support to form a government under New Zealand's proportional representation system.
The National Party, which has been in power for a decade, secured 46 per cent of the vote, while Labour had 35.8 per cent and New Zealand First 7.5 per cent. A final tally will be released on Oct 7.
The results so far secured 58 seats for National in the 120-seat Parliament and 45 for Labour. New Zealand First has nine seats and the Green Party has seven.
Labour and the Greens already have a working agreement, with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern potentially in a position to form a coalition government with 61 seats if she wins Mr Peters' support - the bare minimum needed.
Mr Peters, who has served in previous Labour and National governments, appeared to be in no hurry. He told reporters yesterday that he had not yet received any calls from National or Labour, and had not contacted them.
The colourful populist, a rugby-loving former foreign minister, has in the past backed the party that won the most votes but said he was discussing options with members of his own party first. "I'm doing it one by one by phone," said Mr Peters, a lawyer of indigenous Maori and Scottish descent.
Ms Ardern, a charismatic 37-year-old, revived her party's flagging fortunes after taking over as leader last month but fell far short of what early opinion polls suggested could have been a stunning turnaround. She said it would be hard to complete coalition talks until all votes were tallied, adding that her party would not concede until "we are sure that a stable government has been formed".
Mr English said he would proceed with negotiations with New Zealand First. "The shortest path to stable government is a two-party coalition between National and New Zealand First," he told a news conference.
Analysts saw Mr English and his National Party as the clear favourite. "I think it's fairly obvious that it will be a National-New Zealand First government," said Associate Professor Grant Duncan from Massey University.
National and Labour were both expected to maintain a policy of fiscal prudence if they form the next government, although they differ on monetary policy, trade and immigration.
Mr Peters has been in Parliament since 1978 and was a member of the National Party until he formed his party in 1993. His policies consistently centre on tight immigration controls and reduced taxation.