Politicians will make their annual pilgrimage to Ratana today into the heart of an electorate seat shaping as one of the most fiercely contested and one which could hold the key to who governs next.
Commentators say Te Tai Hauauru, the electorate which covers the western North Island including Ratana Pa, could be the most hotly contested Maori seat as Labour tries to wrest it back from the Maori Party.
With the general election expected to be close, the seat is potentially vital to the hopes of the major parties of forming the next government.
The Maori Party currently holds three seats, but with founders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples retiring at the election it is in danger of losing its hold on Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau which would give its National allies less support to draw on.
Historically, the Ratana church has supported Labour, though that support - along with the influence of the church - has waned in recent years.
Labour has worked hard to win back the church's support, however, and is an early favourite to win back the seat held by Mrs Turia since 2004 - a point conceded by her replacement candidate Chris McKenzie.
He said Labour had the momentum as a result of his party's rift with Hone Harawira and relationship with National, but he is backing himself to overcome that.
"I know the odds and I knew them when I put my hand up . . . and I give myself a good chance. I'm fully confident that I'm going to win this seat."
His current focus was not on winning the backing of church leaders but on meeting voters and emphasising the need for an independent Maori voice in Parliament.
Ratana leaders would have some influence, but those leaders were aligned with several parties and that showed there was "no singular Ratana voice and neither should there be".
Maori were still facing the same issues - poverty, reclaiming lost land and poor education and health - that they were when Eruera Tirikatene, Ratana's first MP, was elected in the 1930s.
Successive National and Labour governments had not addressed those issues and he had lost faith in their ability to do so, he said.
"I'm interested to go and feel the crowd at Ratana to see if they have that frustration as well."
Labour candidate Adrian Rurawhe, the great-grandson of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, said the election momentum was behind him.
After a break caused by Labour's 2004 foreshore and seabed legislation, which also saw him temporarily abandon the party, it had had rebuilt its relationship with the church over the past two and a half years.
There was excitement about his candidacy among his community but he agreed the support of the church did not guarantee him victory.
"At the end of the day it is the voters of Te Tai Hauauru who will decide who will represent them in Parliament, but I feel a lot more comfortable about standing because I do have the support of Ratana."
Church spokesman Andre Mason, who also briefly supported the Maori Party, said the church which has members throughout the Maori electorates, had united behind Labour and would support Mr Ruwhare.
"He has a lot of support in Ratana, through Te Tai Hauauru."
Mr McKenzie was not well known and that would prove a major hurdle to his campaign, he said.
Maori affairs commentator Jon Stoke said while Ratana was an important event on the political calendar "the days of Maori voters following the dictates of iwi or church leaders on who to vote for are long gone".
Te Tai Hauauru was likely to be the most fiercely-contested Maori seat, he said.
- The Dominion Post
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