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Who will the Waikato vote for come the general election?
MIKE MATHER AND ELTON SMALLMAN
This year's general election is shaping up as a battle royal, with two evenly-matched political blocks preparing to tussle over issues like unemployment, economic growth, housing and child poverty.
Which side will win the hearts, minds and votes of the Waikato region is still too difficult to predict, without knowing who the combatants for each seat will be.
That's the view of Patrick Barrett, a senior lecturer in political science and public policy at the University of Waikato, who reckons this year's general election will be contested by Centre-Left and Centre-Right blocks of equal prowess.
While some of the smaller parties like the Maori Party would have a crucial role to play by choosing which side to align with, much of the focus of this election would be on new Labour leader David Cunliffe, Dr Barrett said.
"It will be a defining year for Cunliffe. He is clearly confident and capable and has the ability of attracting people to him. Whether that translates to votes when you have a personality like John Key on the other side - well, we will just have to wait and see."
The two Hamilton electorates - Hamilton East and Hamilton West - had in the past acted as "swing seats", changing hands between Labour and National many times. David Bennett has been incumbent in Hamilton East since 2005, while fellow National MP Tim Macindoe has held Hamilton West since 2008.
Mr Macindoe comfortably saw off a challenge from Labour list MP Sue Moroney in the 2011 election, and a rematch looks likely.
So far only the Greens' Mark Servian (East) and Jennifer Lawless (West) have been officially announced as candidates.
Some electorates in the wider Waikato and surrounding regions could prove pivotal, particularly Rotorua, Taupo and East Coast, which had also been home to alternating Labour and National MPs in recent years.
However others, like Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Taranaki-King Country and Tauranga are seen as safe National seats.
"It will all come down to the calibre of the candidates, as well as the national trends," Dr Barrett said.
The defining issue of this election would be the economy, he said.
"Many reports at the moment are saying the economy is humming along nicely. National will certainly say that is down to their good work, but the centre-left parties will naturally take a different stance.
"What will be critical will be whether those at the bottom are getting anything out of it . . . Certainly we have had economic growth, but that has not been translating into higher levels of employment and that could be telling."
The runaway cost of housing and child poverty would also be big issues, as would the influence of the minor parties. Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell "could have a central role in deciding which side crosses the finish line".
While there was still "plenty of water to go under the bridge yet," Dr Barrett said he was not sure if Conservative Party leader Colin Craig would be as important as some pundits had declared.
"The Colin Craig phenomenon is most interesting. His party is not based on any sort of grass roots support.
"Rather, he is someone who has invested $1 million of his own money into getting the ball rolling. It's a personal crusade by an extremely wealthy individual.
"The Conservatives have been eating into Winston Peters' support base a little but, as history has taught us, you can never count him out.
"Whether Peter Dunne will survive after his various humiliations is harder to predict.
"Hone Harawira has grassroots support in his [Te Tai Tokerau] electorate, but if Labour stands someone like [former MP and Te Tai Tokerau contender] Kelvin Davis against him it could be a real competition."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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