New Zealand gets third Jewish prime minister

John Key, a 47-year-old multimillionaire, former foreign currency trader, son of an Austrian Jewish woman and leader of the conservative national party, swept easily to power.

John Key  248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
John Key 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
New Zealand elected its third Jewish prime minster and its first conservative government in nearly a decade on Saturday, ending the rule of one of the world's longest serving elected woman. John Key, a 47-year-old multimillionaire, former foreign currency trader, son of an Austrian Jewish woman and leader of the conservative national party, swept easily to power. Key promised to be a moderate amid fears some of the country's policies on global warming and indigenous people could be rolled back. Voters on Saturday elected Key to lead them through a recession worsening because of the global financial meltdown, handing long-serving Prime Minister Helen Clark and her central-left Labour Party a crushing defeat. Key said Sunday he hoped his National Party and coalition partners would be sworn into government within about a week so he can attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Peru on Nov. 22-23. The financial crisis will top the summit agenda. In nine years in power, Clark helped build New Zealand's reputation as one of the world's greenest and most socially progressive societies, based around the South Pacific nation's rugged "Lord of the Rings" landscape and strong indigenous Maori culture. Key campaigned as a moderate, but his policies include plans to eventually abolish special parliamentary seats for Maori and making the country's greenhouse gas emission trading scheme more favorable to business. On Sunday, he promised to follow through on tax cuts and pro-business, tough-on-crime policies that include registering the DNA of any suspect arrested for an imprisonable crime. "I don't believe we need to be radical," Key told the TV One network in one of a round of media appearances Sunday. "I've made it quite clear I want to run a center-right government, a moderate government." Key says the economy, dependent on farming exports and tourism, is the top priority, and that the worldwide downturn will mean a "tough road ahead" for New Zealand. He has promised to establish a "razor gang" to review and trim departmental budgets, and spending for infrastructure such as Internet broadband, and to make it easier for other big private-sector projects to go ahead. "New Zealand voters took a major swing to the right yesterday," the Sunday Star Times newspaper said on its front page, calling Key's reform plans "major and controversial." National's win was emphatic, but under New Zealand's proportional voting system Key requires minority party support to get a majority in the 122-seat Parliament. Key's small party allies include the rightist ACT that wants to slash taxes, reduce public services and privatize state-owned enterprises, but also the United Future Party that says it will rein in ACT's hard-right tendencies. "The last thing New Zealand needs now with a new government is an outburst of extremism," United Future Party leader Peter Dunne said. Key also hopes to win support from the Maori Party, which represents the 15 percent indigenous minority in the nation of 4.3 million and won five seats in Parliament. Some pre-election opinion polls indicated Maori could hold the balance of power, but that did not occur. Clark announced she would quit as Labour leader, effectively ending her 15 years in the public eye, though she will remain in Parliament as a backbencher. She congratulated Key on his win, but said she had one fear: that all her government had worked to put in place might "go up in flames on the bonfire of right-wing politics." Foreign affairs and trade policies are unlikely to change much under Key - including the long-standing ban on nuclear-powered ships entering New Zealand ports that has rankled Washington. New Zealand's small number of troops doing reconstruction work in Afghanistan will remain. New Zealand has no troops in Iraq.