Sep 20, 2014 5:54 AM

New Zealand prime minister's party in early lead

The Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) New Zealand Prime Minister John Key's center-right National Party was leading Saturday's general election by a wide margin in early vote counting in his bid for a third term in office.

With polls closed and more than half of the votes counted, Key's center-right party had 49 percent of the vote, while its closest rival, the liberal Labour Party, had just 24 percent.

Should the results hold, Key would return to power with a government that has a similar look to the existing one. Full results were expected late Saturday night.

The early results indicated a swing toward conservative parties and a difficult night for liberal ones. Votes for Labour and the Green Party were tracking lower than in the previous election.

Under New Zealand's proportional voting system, parties typically must form coalitions to govern for the three-year terms.

Early voting indicated several coalition options for Key, and even the possibility that his party could govern outright something that's never happened since the proportional system was introduced in 1996.

In the last election three years ago, the National Party won 47 percent of the vote.

Supporters say Key's party has managed New Zealand's economy well during its six years in office. The economy has been growing at a 4 percent clip, while unemployment has dropped to 5.6 percent. The government projects it will begin running budget surpluses this financial year following years of deficits.

David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour Party, had pledged to build tens of thousands of inexpensive homes for first-time buyers to try and combat a pricey housing market, and to raise the minimum wage.

The campaign was marked by a scandal after investigative journalist and liberal activist Nicky Hager published the book "Dirty Politics," which exposed the extent of the National Party's links with a conservative blogger. Justice Minister Judith Collins resigned from her ministerial portfolios after Key said she colluded with the blogger to try to undermine the director of the Serious Fraud Office, whom Collins oversaw.

Also contesting the election was a party funded by indicted Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who founded the now-shuttered website Megaupload. Dotcom is fighting attempts by U.S. prosecutors to extradite him on racketeering charges over the site, which prosecutors say was used to illegally download enormous numbers of songs and movies.

Dotcom says he can't be held responsible for those who chose to use his site for illegal downloads.

Early results were too close to call on whether Dotcom's Internet Mana Party would get enough support to enter Parliament.

German-born Dotcom was not a candidate himself because he's not a New Zealand citizen and therefore not eligible to run.


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