WELLINGTON: New Zealanders will go to the polls on September 23 in an election set to be dominated by the economy and the need for stable government, Prime Minister Bill English said Wednesday.
English, who took over as leader in the South Pacific nation in December following the shock resignation of his predecessor John Key, will seek a fourth term for the conservative National Party-led coalition.
Asked to nominate the focus of his campaign, English replied “growth”, pointing to an economy expanding at about 3.5 percent a year.
He also said New Zealand needed continuity amid ongoing international political turmoil.
“(We) have provided successful and stable government, which matters more now at a time of uncertainty in many parts of the world,” he told reporters, after panning the implementation of US President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven mainly Muslim nations.
However, the National Party will go into the election without arguably its strongest asset, former leader Key, who maintained strong personal popularity during his eight years in power.
An opinion poll taken shortly after Key quit showed National’s support down 4.5 points at 45 percent, while the Labor-Green coalition rose 5.5 to 43 percent.
English said he expected a close election, which are held every three years, but added that was normal under New Zealand’s proportional voting system.
“We will be taking nothing for granted,” he said, adding that he would prefer to work with National’s current coalition partners, the ACT, United Future and Maori parties.
But he refused to rule out forming government with New Zealand First, led by the populist Winston Peters, who has campaigned in the past for immigration curbs and reinstating economic trade barriers.
English, a 54-year-old former farmer, has been in parliament for 27 years, serving as finance minister under Key.
His last leadership foray was in opposition in 2002, when he took National to a record loss, attracting barely 20 percent of the vote.
After nursing the budget back into the black in recent years, English hinted there could be some election sweeteners, possibly in the form of tax breaks.
“We’ve got some surpluses that we’ve worked pretty hard to get, so we’ve got some positive choices and we’re concerned about incomes,” he said.
Labor leader Andrew Little said he was “raring to go” and would campaign on issues such as health care, housing affordability and better education.
“New Zealand (is) one step closer to electing a new government that will give hope to all those left behind by National,” he said.
When Key quit in December, he said he was exhausted after leading the nation of 4.5 million people since 2008, saying: “I have nothing left in the tank.” AFP