Obama an inspiration for Maori in election

? New Zealand’s indigenous Maori minority went into elections today inspired by Barack Obama’s victory in the United States and with a chance of securing the balance of power at home.

Obama’s election as the United States’ first African-American president reverberated across the world as a triumph over old stereotypes, a chord that rang especially true for minority groups.

“I think that’s a message to the whole world, that we can build on our past and move forward. I think America has done that,” said Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party, New Zealand’s only all-indigenous political party.

Maori account for 15 percent of New Zealand’s 3.4 million population and are its poorest, worst-housed and least-healthy citizens, suffering higher unemployment and crime rates than most others.

Obama’s victory is not likely to have a direct effect on the election in New Zealand, where voting opened this morning at some 2,600 polling stations. But a close contest could give the Maori Party the role of kingmaker and a huge influence on government policy.

The two major parties – Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour and conservative John Key’s Nationals – are almost certain not to gain a majority in the 123-seat Parliament in their own right.

A complex proportional voting system ensures significant numbers of seats will go to a handful of small parties.

The big parties have wooed smaller allies to their side, and only the Maori Party remains unaligned. Opinion polls have tipped the Nationals, with its allies, to win power for the first time in a decade in the South Pacific country best known for its “Lord of the Rings” landscape.

But a surge by Labour on voting day – which Clark insists can occur – could hand the balance of power to the Maori Party, which holds four seats and is expected to retain them in today’s vote.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said it is prepared to put either National or Labour into government – depending who comes up with the best deal.

Among their demands are the repeal of a law preventing Maori from claiming rights to the foreshore and seabed, and greater control over government spending on indigenous programs to prevent waste.

Clark said she is willing to bargain with the Maori Party; Key concedes his party is “diametrically opposed” to the Maori group on some issues but that he will strike a deal if it means taking power.

Foreign affairs and trade policies are unlikely to change much no matter which side wins – including the long-standing ban on nuclear-powered ships entering New Zealand ports that has rankled military ally Washington.

The global financial crisis loomed large in the campaign, worsening a recession and forcing the main parties to pare back promises of big tax cuts.

Clark, a 58-year-old former academic and avid wilderness trekker with a reputation for a serious, even dour, demeanor, has led the country since 1999, making her one of the world’s longest-serving elected female leaders.

“Don’t gamble with our future now, don’t jump into the unknown,” Clark said.

Key, 47, a multimillionaire former foreign currency trader, tried to co-opt Obama’s success, saying Americans had embraced his call for change.

“Whether that will pervade … in New Zealand will only be found out Saturday night, but here’s hoping,” he said.