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New Zealand Voters Cast Ballots

November 27, 1999

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ New Zealand’s conservative prime minister wants the nation to stick with her free-market policies.

But voters heading to the polls for today’s general election were expected to oust Prime Minister Jenny Shipley’s government and instead choose a center-left coalition that is promising to raise taxes on the rich.

From the busy streets of Auckland in the north to the rugged mountains of the south, voters cast their ballots today in the nation’s first general election to feature two women battling for the premiership.

Lawyer Toby Norgate, 26, was waiting at a busy polling station in downtown Wellington to vote for Shipley’s National Party. But he acknowledged what pollsters have been saying for months _ that Labor, led by candidate Helen Clark, was almost certain to lead the next government.

A Labor victory would end the conservatives’ nine-year grip on power here.

``It looks like it is going to be a victory for the left, by all accounts,″ Norgate said.

Shipley became prime minister in November 1997 when she ousted predecessor Jim Bolger in a backroom deal. She has run on her free-market ideals and promises of tax cuts for individuals and businesses.

``If you want more disposable income through reducing taxes and for New Zealand to be highly competitive internationally, please give National the party vote on Saturday,″ Shipley said in a televised appeal Friday.

But polls suggest Clark will win out with her pledges to raise taxes. The proposed levies are intended to help fund improvements in social and health services and to set up a venture capital fund for new businesses.

``I think New Zealanders are looking forward to a fresh start in the new century with a government committed to a better deal for the ordinary hard-working people,″ Clark said.

According to an election-eve poll by Victoria University, Wellington, Labor will win 52 seats in the 120-seat parliament, with National getting 37. The left-wing Alliance party is expected to win 14 seats.

That would mean Labor would have to form a coalition with Alliance to gain a clear parliamentary majority. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

A high turnout was expected. There are 2.5 million registered voters in New Zealand, which is the size of California and has a population of 3.8 million.

Shipley’s National Party has come under fire for running an unimaginative and uninspiring campaign, and its support has slipped steadily away in recent weeks.

``Labor definitely had the better campaign,″ Norgate said. ``But they were both fairly lackluster.″

Two nonbinding citizen-initiated referendums also were being voted on today _ one recommending tougher sentences for criminals, the other recommending the number of lawmakers in parliament be reduced from 120 to 99.

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