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A Fiery Nativist Takes On No. 2 Post in New Zealand

When it comes to national politics, New Zealand frequently imports some of its brightest ideas from America. This year's bestseller here, "The Spin," a political novel written by "Anonymous," tells the inside story of the campaign that led up to the Oct. 12 national election, just as "Primary Colors" told the story of the 1992 election in the United States.

But the comparison to American politics is much older in the case of Winston Peters, the new deputy prime minister of New Zealand.

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"I don't know if Winston has ever formally studied Huey P. Long," says one leading New Zealand parliamentarian, referring to the former governor of Louisiana, "but that's who you'd have to compare him with. He's the guy who will make every man a king, not least himself."

Mr. Peters, a one-time political outcast who now leads the nativist New Zealand First Party (NZF), claimed his mantle during eight weeks of talks that followed the inconclusive October election.

While commanding only 13 percent of the national vote - and only 17 members in the 120-seat Parliament - NZF came in third in a race in which neither of the two front-runners could muster the numbers to form a government. The top two parties, Labor and National, had already ruled each other out as potential coalition partners. That left NZF to form a governing alliance, an event that effectively pulled down the curtain on this country's 60-year-old Labor-National hold on power.

NZF's choice of the National Party as a partner was viewed by many commentators as sweet revenge for Peters, who formed his party in 1993 after being fired from the National Party Cabinet.

During the recent campaign, Peters aimed some of his harshest criticisms at his former National colleagues, claiming that they were "unfit to govern." Public-opinion polls suggested that much of his support was drawn from disgruntled National voters.

For its part, the National Party all but demonized NZF, casting Peters as a left-wing xenophobe who has "raised racial intolerance to a new level that has not been seen in this country in 50 years," according to Prime Minister James Bolger. Mr. Bolger was responding to the fiery anti-Asian rhetoric of NZF's immigration policy, the release of which coincided with a surge in NZF's poll numbers - from 6 percent in January to 22 percent by midyear.

Peters, who makes much of his heritage as a Maori, the Polynesian people who inhabited New Zealand long before the Europeans, claims that he is not anti-immigrant but pro-New Zealander. Other issues where he plucks a patriotic chord include favoring state control of "strategic national assets," the wrestling of corporate power from multinational companies, and the limiting of ownership of New Zealand land by foreigners.

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"By his nature, he's opposed to everything," says David McLoughlin, a political commentator here who writes extensively on Peters. "Where I'm of two minds is whether he actually believes everything he says or whether he makes it up as he goes."

To secure the coalition deal, Peters moderated his radical tone on immigration and foreign investment. At the same time, he will be the new government's treasurer, overseeing the offices of finance minister and governor of the central reserve bank. He has pledged to continue running national budget surpluses. The new government has also announced a modest increase in spending on social security, health, and education over the next fiscal year.

Confounding some analysts, the appointment of Peters to the treasury post has not dampened the enthusiasm of international financial markets. The New Zealand dollar rose against the US dollar this month. But some economists remain unsure of him.

"With the greatest respect, I have no idea who or where his economic advice is coming from," says Lewis Evans, a professor of economics at the Victoria University of Wellington.

"There's certainly no doubt that he has been an effective populist opposition figure," says Mike Moore, a Labor Party member of Parliament and a former prime minister. He says that, despite their differences, the maladroit couple of Peters and Bolger - who remains prime minister - will not file for a political divorce. Mr. Moore believes both will find it in their self-interest to make the coalition last for the three years remaining in Bolger's term.

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