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Muldoon squeaks by in New Zealand election

The conservative mood of New Zealand's voters appears to have played into the hands of the country's outspoken prime minister, Robert Muldoon, who squeaked back into power in New Zealand's closest-fought election in decades.

Mr. Muldoon, a controversial figure in both domestic and Commonwealth politics, had an uphill battle when he went into the election campaign.

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Inflation is running at a white-hot 15.4 percent, the government's internal deficit is a record $2 billion, a credit squeeze is predicted early next year, there are serious housing problems, and growth in the last six months has been less than 1 percent.

History dictates that a government entering an election campaign with that kind of record should be ousted. But there were complicating factors in election '81 that allowed Muldoon to hold on. At this writing his ruling National Party holds 47 seats, the opposition Labour Party 43 seats, and the Social Credit Political League two seats.

The most important factor assisting Muldoon was the effect of the acrimonious South African ''Springbok'' rugby tour. Muldoon announced that he was personally opposed to the tour, but he refused to cancel it.

Clearly, the government saw it would gain more votes than it would lose by giving rugby-fanatical New Zealanders an opportunity to watch the South Africans play. It worked. Muldoon raided traditional Labour votes by picking up the ''redneck'' vote.

In several key marginal seats, the tour was the difference between winning and losing. Alternatively in liberal, intellectual Wellington Central, it cost National votes.

Muldoon's outspokenness at the recent Melbourne Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting, which put him at odds with many heads of state, also got him tremendous support. The tour had created a laager mentality among New Zealanders, who applauded his pugnacious defense of the tour against other Commonwealth leaders, many of whom were seen to have highly questionable human rights' records in their own countries.

Muldoon also campaigned on the government's ''think big'' policy, a $4 billion plan to exploit New Zealand's energy, forestry, fishing, farming, and tourism resources.

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''Think big'' had foundered during the quiet, four-week election campaign as doubts were cast on the ability to get some of the energy projects off the ground. But in the end, apart from one or two constituencies that stood to benefit directly, New Zealand voters did not switch on to ''think big.''

For Labour the result is a disaster. The party's mild-mannered leader, Wallace Rowling, led his party to its third defeat since 1975.

Election results, however, were extraordinarily close. The National Party's election-night tally in the 92-seat Parliament was only 46 to Labour's 44, with the remaining two seats going to the Social Credit party. Had this situation prevailed, it would have given New Zealand its first ''hung'' Parliament in decades. The small Social Credit party would have held the balance of power.

But on Dec. 1, three days after the election, the vital rural seat of Gisborne, which had previously been chalked up as a Labour win, swung back to the National Party by a wafer-thin four votes. It was enough to give Muldoon a working majority.

After a parliamentary speaker is elected, Muldoon will have a majority of one if the present result stands. The final outcome, however, could be altered yet again as a result of special absentee ballots or legal challenges alleging voting irregularities. Two other National Party seats -- one won by 16 votes and the other won 44 by votes -- could also be affected.

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