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New Zealand's Labor Party Begins Coalition Talks With a One-Seat Election Lead

In New Zealand, the governing Labor Party of Prime Minister Helen Clark holds a narrow advantage over the conservative National Party after Saturday's general elections. Leaders from both main parties are holding talks with minor parties in the hope of forming a minority government.

A bid by New Zealand's governing Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Helen Clark, to win three successive terms in office hung by the barest of margins from Saturday's elections. Labor appears to have won 50 seats in the 122-seat Parliament - that is only one seat more than the conservative opposition National Party.

Mrs. Clark thanked her supporters after the preliminary vote count was announced.

"Perhaps I should start by saying thank you mainstream New Zealand," she said. "This election has been very finely balanced and the result has been a close one and I am humbled that we have the opportunity to form a new government."

So-called special ballots - which include those cast by New Zealanders living abroad - have yet to be counted. These ballots made up about 10 percent of the vote in 2002 and there is a remote chance that it could affect the final outcome.

A final tally is not expected until October.

Meanwhile, without a clear majority, both party leaders are now negotiating with minor parties to form a government.

Kevin Norquay, of New Zealand Press Association, says Labor has the advantage.

"Labor holds a one-seat advantage and they have more friends - they are in a position to put together a coalition of some sort. No-one really knows what shape its likely to be because everyone has got to talk about how well they get on with everybody else," he said.

The Labor Party, elected in 1999 after 15 years in the political wilderness, has campaigned on its governing record, boosting economic growth and bringing unemployment to a record 30 year low of just 3.7 percent.

Mrs. Clark is banking on support from the recently formed Maori Party - which may hold the key in this election.

National leader, Don Brash, campaigned on abolishing the seats reserved in Parliament for News Zealand's indigenous Maori as well as ending other special programs.