New Zealanders go to polls in 'dirty tricks' election

WELLINGTON - New Zealanders voted Saturday in a general election with conservative Prime Minister John Key tipped for a narrow victory despite a roller-coaster campaign dominated by allegations of dirty tricks and mass surveillance.

Polling booths opened at 9:00 am and will close at 7:00 pm (0700 GMT) as 3.06 million registered voters cast their ballots for the South Pacific nation's 51st parliament.

First indications of the election outcome - which is notoriously difficult to predict under New Zealand's proportional voting system - are expected during the evening.

Opinion polls indicate Key is set to succeed in his bid for a third term, although the centre-left Labour Party said the latest surveys indicating a swing of less than one per cent could result in a change of government.

Policies have largely taken a back seat in the campaign to claims of government dirty tricks and smear campaigns, based on hacked emails, along with accusations Key's administration allowed mass spying on the population.

Key has denied any wrongdoing and his centre-right National Party has stuck to a campaign strategy of emphasising New Zealand's economic growth while relying on the personal popularity of its charismatic leader, referring to itself as "Team Key".

Despite the allegations of underhand tactics, which forced one senior minister to resign, Key's approval rating has held steady, reaching close to 70 per cent in some polls.

"There's been all these distractions and different issues going on but the polling hasn't really moved," the former merchant banker told reporters on the eve of the election.

"There's just the natural tightening you get in any (campaign) cycle."

Key's National Party won 47.3 per cent of the vote in the 2011 election and forged a coalition with minor parties. Latest opinion polls put its support at 47.7 to 48.2 per cent.

Labour, which gained 27.5 per cent of the vote last time, is polling at 26.1 but could potentially form a government with left-wing ally the Greens and New Zealand First, which has not declared who it would support if the election turns into a cliffhanger.

'Momentum for change?'

Labour leader David Cunliffe said his week that he believed a late surge in support would shift the election his way.

"I feel a huge momentum for change building up in the electorate," he said. "I can feel it, it's palpable."

The charges of underhand tactics were sparked by the publication of a book "Dirty Politics" that cited hacked emails apparently showing senior government officials conspired with a right-wing blogger to smear their opponents.

Internet mogul Kim Dotcom, who accuses Key of conspiring with Washington to arrange his arrest on online piracy charges, enlisted high-profile fugitives Edward Snowden and Julian Assange to allege Key had given spy agencies a green light to snoop on New Zealanders.

The allegations, which Snowden and Assange made by satellite links from their respective hideaways in Russia and the Ecuador embassy in London, failed to produce the election "bombshell" Dotcom had promised.

With the race still so close, voter numbers could prove crucial. Saturday's poll coincided with heavy rain across much of the country, a factor that could lower turnout, which was 75 per cent at the last election in 2011.

No single party has ever won a majority since New Zealand adopted its German-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996.

There are 71 electorates with the remaining seats filled through party votes bringing the number of MPs in parliament to around 120.