New Zealanders begin voting in general election

New Zealanders began voting in general election Saturday morning. In spite of cold weather, the voters are heading to polling stations. They hand in their Easy Vote cards that they have received after registering for the election.

Around 600 candidates from 28 political parties and groups, anda number of independents are competing for the 120 seats in the parliament.

The New Zealand parliament has been characterized in the past by two large, dominant parties, the current main ruling party -- the Labor Party, and the current main opposition party -- the National Party, with the majority party forming the Government andthe minority party forming the Opposition. In fact, this election is another contest between the two rivals.

Since the country adopted the Mixed Member Proportional(MMP) election system in the three-yearly general elections in 1996, it has never happened that any single party has commanded an absolutemajority in the parliament and been able to form a government on its own account.

When New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced on the June 11 the date for this election, which is two months earlier than scheduled, the Labor Party was aimed at winning a majority inthe parliament and form a single party government by taking the advantage of its high support rating in the public at that time. But it seems the party has abandoned the hope of winning enough votes to govern alone because of its support rates in the latest polls dropping to 43 percentage points from well above 50 percentage points when the election date was announced. However, the support rating in the public for the Labor Party has still been far ahead of its major rival, the National Party.

Observers here are of the opinion that there will be no problemfor the Labor led by Prime Minister Helen Clark to win the election, but it will have difficulties to form the government solely by its own. The Labor Party will seek support from minor political parties to form a coalition government.

Helen Clark lately said: "I think we're heading for a minority coalition government."

"With National out of the picture the focus has gone on who will be the bride to Labor," she added.

The current parliament comprises 120 members, of whom 61 are general electorate MPs, six are Maori electorate MPs and 53 are list MPs. But two more electorates including a Maori electorate have been added to this election and the next parliament will be made up of 69 electorate MPs and 51 list MPs.

Under the MMP electoral system, every voter has two votes: one for the political party of his or her choice and the other for hisor her preferred candidate to represent the electorate. The candidate who gets the most votes in each of the 69 electorates becomes the MP for that electorate. A party qualifies for Parliamentary seats by winning either at least 5 percent of party votes or an electorate seat. The party vote, in general, decides the total number of seats in the parliament for each party.

New Zealand is one of few developed countries that enjoy high voting rates. In the past two decades, the country's voting rates for general elections have always exceeded 80 percent. There are more than 2.6 million registered voters for this election, it is expected that around two million will cast their votes in 2,900 polling stations which are dotted throughout the country.

Voting is by secret ballot. Without specific permission, media people are not allowed to enter the polling places to take pictures or talk to voters.

Chief election officer David Henry said that his target is to make final results from the general election available before midnight. The final official election results are expected on August 9 or 10.



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