WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Voters delivered a stinging rebuff to New Zealand's ruling National Party on Saturday, an unexpected result that left Parliament without a clear majority.
The government's harsh economic measures were seen as largely to blame.
At the end of provisional counting, the National Party had 49 of Parliament's 99 seats, the opposition Labor Party had 46, and two small new parties, the Alliance and New Zealand First, had two each.
Election officials said the final outcome wouldn't be declared for 10 days and the fate of several seats could change with further counting of absentee ballots. Two million votes were cast.
Before the vote, the National Party had a 37-seat advantage over Labor, and opinion polls during the past week had pointed to a narrow National victory.
Despite the uncertainty, both Prime Minister Jim Bolger and Labor leader Mike Moore claimed they would be able to form governments with the cooperation of the smaller parties.
Analysts, however, warned of a possible hung Parliament, since the smaller parties were likely to split their support.
"There is no political crisis in New Zealand," Bolger, a 53-year-old sheep farmer, declared late Saturday in a speech aimed at minimizing electoral fallout on financial markets.
But Moore, 44, said the National Party had no mandate to stay in power and Labor would proceed with plans to take office.
"There has to be a new way now. The government is being rebuffed," he said.
In Saturday's election, voters also approved a proposal to change the electoral system to make it easier for small parties to enter Parliament.
The election and referendum were held amid widespread disenchantment with the present parliamentary system dominated by National and Labor.
Both parties are responsible for harsh economic restructuring--Labor when it was in power from 1984 to 1990 and National since it won in 1990.
In three years, the National Party has reduced the power of trade unions and cut back on comprehensive state welfare, health and education systems.