Four months ago, five leading frontbenchers of New Zealand's opposition Labour Party urged Helen Clark, their leader, to step aside in light of her dismal standing in opinion polls. She refused and is now poised to become the country's first female prime minister after tomorrow's election.
It would be one of the biggest fight-backs in New Zealand's political history for a woman renowned as one of Parliament's finest intellects but who lacks popular appeal. Labour, racked by dissent since David Lange resigned as prime minister in 1989, has languished in the polls all this election year.
Ms Clark, 46, with her humourless image, had struggled to get above the margin of error in opinion polls. But in the last few weeks of the campaign support has picked up dramatically and Ms Clark, sporting a glamorous new hairstyle and softer image, is tipped to lead a centre-left coalition government. A former lecturer, she has lightened her academic mien by attending rugby-league matches and race meetings. She ousted the previous Labour leader, Mike Moore, after he lost the 1993 election, and has moved Labour to the centre and kept it together in a period of turmoil leading up to the first election conducted under proportional representation . Ms Clark's main opponent, Jim Bolger, leader of the conservative National Party and Prime Minister for the past six years, has been called the India- rubber man of New Zealand politics. Policy flip-flops have seen him embrace the Labour anti-nuclear policy he once condemned, and Nelson Mandela, whom former National governments dubbed a terrorist. He has also showed steel in holding his government together after winning re-election with a single-seat majority in 1993, losing a number of defecting MPs, running a minority administration and then cobbling together a coalition. Much of this time he did poorly in opinion polls, being seen as arrogant and pompous, while his party remained popular. An MP for 24 years, the 61-year-old farmer, son of Irish immigrants and father of nine, has mellowed like the whisky he relaxes with late at night. But he remains convinced he is the only person who can lead the country in the new political environment. …