WELLINGTON - Early results in a cliffhanger New Zealand election on Saturday suggested conservative Prime Minister John Key was set to claim victory, with voters ignoring campaign allegations of dirty tricks and spying.
With more than half of total votes counted a few hours after polling booths closed at 7:00 pm (0700 GMT), the centre-right National Party was on 48.9 per cent, which would secure Key a third term in the South Pacific nation.
However, Key cautioned that it was far too early to make a definitive call given New Zealand's notoriously unpredictable proportional voting system, saying he was "nervous but hopeful" on the basis of initial results.
"They look really strong but it's early days - you just have to careful with those early numbers, they can break down a wee bit," he told reporters as he handed out pizza to media camped outside his Auckland home.
The early numbers would give National 63 seats in a 121-member parliament, making it the first party to win an outright majority since New Zealand adopted its German-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996.
Key's seats would increase to 67 if he struck a deal with the minor parties that supported him in his second term, giving him a comfortable buffer.
The main opposition Labour Party was on 23.8 per cent, 3.7 per cent down on the last election in 2011. Labour's centre-left ally the Greens were on 10.0 per cent, down 1.1 per cent on 2011 and well short of the 15 per cent it was targeting.
The biggest gainer appeared to be the populist New Zealand First Party, led by maverick political veteran Winston Peters, which lifted its vote from 6.6 in 2011 to 9.0 per cent.
Internet-Mana, bankrolled by flamboyant tech mogul Kim Dotcom in a bid to oust Key, was struggling on 1.3 per cent and facing the prospect of having no representatives in New Zealand's 51st parliament.
'Dirty tricks' campaign
Policies largely took a back seat on the hustings to claims of government dirty tricks and smear campaigns, along with accusations Key's administration allowed mass spying on the population.
The charges of underhand tactics were sparked by the publication of the book "Dirty Politics" which cited hacked emails apparently showing that senior government officials conspired with a right-wing blogger to smear political opponents.
Dotcom, who accuses Key of working with Washington to arrange his arrest on online piracy charges, also accused the prime minister of giving spy agencies a green light to snoop on New Zealanders.
Key denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the allegations as a "distraction" that would be ignored by voters more interested in strong leadership and the economy.
The National Party stuck to a strategy of emphasising New Zealand's economic growth while relying on the personal popularity of its charismatic leader, referring to itself as "Team Key".
It appeared to have paid off as Key's approval rating held steady, reaching close to 70 per cent in some polls.
A total of 3.06 million voters were registered for the election.
There are 71 elected seats with the remainder filled through party votes, bringing the number of MPs in parliament to 121.