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Bread-and-butter issues shape New Zealand election

New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, the man whose antinuclear policies provoked a bitter rift with the United States, is favored to regain power for another three years in the general election this Saturday. A month ago, Mr. Lange looked set for a landslide victory. A major opinion poll showed his Labour Party ahead of the main opposition National Party by 61 percent to 35 percent. Such a margin which would give Labour a record majority in the House of Representatives.

By the eve of elections, that gap had narrowed, with latest polls giving Labour a margin of from seven to ten percent.

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Lange is supremely confident. He claims Labour is poised not only to win but to gain a mandate that will entrench it as the ``natural party'' of government. Such a role had previously been held by National, which ruled from 1949 until 1984, apart from one-term Labour administrations in 1957-60 and 1972-75.

Despite the odds against him, National's leader Jim Bolger believes he can turn the tide running in Labour's favor and prevent Lange from becoming the first Labour prime minister to win two successive elections since 1946.

Labour's antinuclear policies have barred the US's Navy ships from visiting its long-term ally, disrupted the 1951 ANZUS defense alliance linking both countries with Australia, and focused unprecedented international attention on New Zealand.

National has reversed its nuclear stance, accepting the antinuclear sentiments of most New Zealanders while holding that it wants to restore ANZUS. Mr. Bolger says he would invite US ships to visit while trusting Washington to respect New Zealand's desire to remain nuclear free. A poll of New Zealanders last year found that 73 percent wanted the country to be free of nuclear weapons and 72 percent favored being part of an alliance with a larger power like the US.

Bolger believes the US can accept this and hints of an agreement. There are signs that Washington is ready to negotiate a restoration of defense relations whichever government is returned.

But the Labour government's drive to rebuild the economy on free-market lines is the key election issue. Over the last three years, Labour has moved with startling speed to reform one of the world's most protected and tightly regulated economies.

Exposing industry to competition from cheap imports and stripping subsidies from farmers has opened up the economy - but at a price. Labour's claims that its policies are working have been undercut by recent announcements of a record inflation rate of 18.9 percent and soaring unemployment.

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Labour says the short-term pain is inevitable to produce the long-term benefits of a lean, and prosperous economy. National says Labour has ravaged the country.

Labour campaigns on a promise of a better future - ``Be there with Labour'' and National's theme is ``Let's get New Zealand right.'' National's slogan amuses many, who say New Zealand could not be any more to the right than it is under Labour's orthodox conservative economic policies.

National does not differ with the broad thrust of Labour's economic policies, but says the pain is unnecessary. With Labour fully backed by big business, financiers and speculators, the campaign has produced a reversal of traditional party roles. Many old Labour supporters are confused and hurt that it is National that is pledging policies which ``put people first.''

Lange, a lawyer, is a charismatic figure who heads a young and vigorous team. Bolger is National's third leader since the last election and has had difficulty moulding a credible alternative government.

Although Bolger trails Lange in the polls, he is bravely tackling him head on, accusing him of duplicity and broken promises. While Lange has been accused of arrogance and being ``over-inflated,'' the National leader, who is a farmer, has made a number of tactical errors, leading one commentator to describe him as ``a bumbling Mr. Bolger who seems determined to stick a pitchfork through his gumboot.''

Both have their detractors and a popular election slogan is: ``Don't vote - it only encourages them.''

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