New Zealand Starts Counting Votes in Too-Close-To-Call Election

Minister Bill English attends an event to promote a New Zealand lamb product at a restaurant in Hong Kong China

Minister Bill English attends an event at a restaurant in Hong Kong Thomson Reuters

New Zealand's cliffhanger election ended in a stalemate Saturday, leaving maverick populist Winston Peters of the New Zealand First (NZF) party to decide whether conservative Prime Minister Bill English or his youthful challenger Jacinda Ardern forms government.

Mr English, a career politician and a former finance minister, says he thinks a major accomplishment of his party is has been getting New Zealand onto "such a stable economic footing".

NZ First is now at 7.5% and Peters, familiar with his role as king-maker in New Zealand elections, has indicated he will be weighing his options before making a decision on which party he will support into government.

Under strict election day laws New Zealand does not allow exit polls during voting, which opened at 9am (2100 GMT Friday) and closed at 7pm (0700 GMT).

The charismatic Jacinda Ardern, who revitalised the main opposition Labour Party, also failed to muster sufficient numbers.

The results position Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, as the kingmaker.

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New Zealand First's 7.5 percent of the vote gives it 9 seats, and the Green Party, with 5.8 percent, has 7.

Her appointment sparked support for the ailing centre-left party, resulting in a 20-point boost for Labour, bringing it level with National.

National leader Bill English said he would start talking to NZ First in the next few days about forming a new government.

"I've called Bill and acknowledged that", Ardern told her supporters, adding she was planning conversations with both the Green and New Zealand First parties.

Ms Ardern said as leader she took responsibility for Labour's 10-point loss.

Only two months ago, National had looked assured of victory as Labour languished in the polls.

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"I will not be giving any answers tonight or tomorrow until I've had a full chance to talk to our full board of New Zealand First, our supporters and organizations around the country and our (members of Parliament)", Peters said, according to Radio NZ. It could only count on the one seat brought to the table by ACT, which has retained Epsom, and would need another partner to govern. They won't change any crucial seats and National is extremely unlikely to go up.

Ardern and English were expected to maintain fiscal prudence, but to differ on monetary policy, trade and immigration.

There were 3.2 million New Zealanders registered to vote in the election, with a record 1.2 million of them opting to cast ballots early.

Peters, a political veteran whose fiery rhetoric has seen him compared to US President Donald Trump, knows how to extract the most from coalition negotiations.

But he is a controversial figure in New Zealand politics.

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