New Zealanders began voting Saturday in a general election that could see the Labour-led coalition, which has governed for the last nine years, defeated by its conservative opponents, according to opinion polls.
Labour's hopes of surviving a considerable swing to the right in voter sentiment depend on the polling of minor parties, who could prop it up in another coalition if they return enough people to the parliament of 120 to 123 members, dpa reported.
The polls indicate that one in 10 voters was still undecided and New Zealand's proportional representation system of voting, which is designed to ensure minor parties are represented in parliament, could still produce a surprise.
Nearly 3 million New Zealanders are registered to vote for a total of 682 candidates and 19 parties and advance voting indicated the turnout could exceed the 80 per cent who cast ballots at the last election in 2005.
Under New Zealand law, all party billboards and other advertising, including bumper stickers had to be removed at midnight, prior to 2,700 polling booths opening throughout the country.
The election pits Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, 58, a veteran of 27 years in parliament, against a relative newcomer to politics in National Party leader John Key, 47, a former foreign currency dealer who entered the House of Representatives as its richest member only six years ago.
Although five polls released within 24 hours of the election put the National Party in front of Labour by at least seven percentage points, Key said he was taking nothing for granted.
He shrugged off suggestions that he was too inexperienced, saying Friday, "I know in my heart of hearts I'm totally ready to do that job and it would be an enormous privilege to be prime minister."
Key charted an aircraft for a two-day, whistle-stop countrywide tour to wind up his campaign, while Clark threw everything into a last ditch walkabout in her home city Auckland, in which she shook hundreds of hands while appealing to Labour supporters to get out and vote.
Just under 230,000 of voters are Maoris who will vote for the seven seats in parliament reserved for the indigenous people.
The Maori Party, formed only four years ago, has hopes of winning all seven, which could see them hold the balance of power if Labour succeeds in narrowing the gap with the Nationals.
The Greens, who have pledged to support Labour if it gets up to form another government, are polling well and commentators said they could double their number of seats to 12.
Polling ends at 7 pm (0700 GMT) and all results should be declared by 11:30 pm. However, unless one of the main two parties wins an overall majority the shape of the government will depend on days, or even weeks, of negotiation with coalition partners.