WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Prime Minister Helen Clark was poised for a third term Saturday after fighting off an election challenge from the National Party, which had vowed to end affirmative action programs for indigenous Maori and dismantle nuclear-free laws in return for a free-trade deal with Washington.
With all regular votes counted, Clark's Labor Party had 50 seats and National 49 in a new Parliament of 122 lawmakers.
"My objective now is to begin negotiations that will enable us to lead a government which brings New Zealanders together," Clark told a jubilant crowd in her Auckland district.
Clark, who could be the first Labor leader since World War II to win three terms, said her chief of staff had contacted potential coalition partners.
National Party leader Don Brash refused to concede defeat, saying he would "endeavor to put together a National-led government."
With Labor slightly ahead, though, it was in the strongest position of the two main parties to cobble together a deal for support from minor parties.
The most likely partners are the new Maori Party, which won four seats; the Greens, which have six; and the Progressive party, with one lawmaker. The nationalist NZ First party, with seven lawmakers, had said it would talk to the largest party about giving it support on key votes in Parliament.
"I've run a stable minority government for the last six years and I hope to form one again," Clark said.
Brash, a 64-year-old former central bank governor, had said that if he won, he would be prepared to dismantle New Zealand's 20-year-old nuclear-free laws to help pave the way for a free-trade deal with the United States -- although he would first seek approval for the move in a referendum.
New Zealand's laws banning nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered vessels have strained relations between Washington and Wellington since they were enacted in 1985.
Brash also would scrap a raft of affirmative action programs aimed at impoverished Maori, which he condemned as "state-sponsored separatism."
The Maori, a minority of 530,000 people, are among the poorest, least-educated and worst-housed citizens in this nation of 4 million, and make up half the prison population.
Since coming to power in 1999, Clark has presided over a booming economy.