WELLINGTON - A pugnacious political maverick who wants tighter controls on the economy, immigration and on foreigners buying land, is shaping up as the king maker in New Zealand elections on Saturday.
Opinion polls indicate that Winston Peters, the leader of the small and economically nationalist New Zealand First Party, could control a strategic block of seats and determine whether the South Pacific nation is governed by a left-leaning or a right-leaning centrist coalition.
It is a role Peters has filled in the past, although this time New Zealand is facing a somewhat unusual general election that even includes a party founded by Internet tycoon and alleged online pirate, Kim Dotcom.
Dotcom, who is eligible to vote but cannot run for office because he is not a New Zealand citizen, launched his Internet Party in April with a crowd-sourced platform that promotes online privacy rights and reforms to copyright laws.
While not a major political player in itself, it could also end up influencing the outcome of the poll if it ties up with another fringe party, under New Zealand's German-style proportional voting system.
Peters' party, however, is more likely to influence the outcome and he has promised to keep his party's options open.
"We are not going to sell our soul purely to be in a government," he said.
A Reuters survey of the main opinion polls shows the National Party led by Prime Minister John Key, a former investment banker, with 48 per cent support but backing for National's junior partners is falling.
That makes New Zealand's First 6.8 per cent support potentially pivotal.
The main opposition Labour Party trails with 25 per cent support, the survey shows.
"We could end up with a hung parliament, and that will make Winston Peters the kingmaker," said political scientist Bryce Edwards.
SUPPORT FOR KEY
Peters has been in this position before. In 1996, he teased the two main parties for eight weeks before siding with National.
In 2005, he became foreign minister in a centre-left Labour-led government despite promising not to be seduced by the"baubles of office".