New Zealand's ruling National party launched its election campaign Sunday engulfed in a furore over underhand tactics, less than four weeks before the country goes to the polls.
A newly published book, based on emails hacked from the computer of a right-wing blogger, alleges the centre-right government of Prime Minister John Key and the blogger co-operated in a sustained dirty tricks campaign.
Opposition parties have demanded heads should roll within the National Party hierarchy, sidetracking policy releases ahead of the election, but Key has refuted any suggestions of wrong-doing.
Opinion polls show the book has had a negative impact on the government although it does not appear to be enough, yet, to tarnish Key's chances of winning a third term in office.
Key's government has enjoyed strong public support, buoyed this year by delivering the country's first budget surplus in six years.
While the National Party currently governs with the support of a handful of minor parties, some polls suggest it could govern in its own right after this election, a situation unprecedented since New Zealand adopted a German-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system in 1996.
However, in his campaign opening speech, Key urged his party faithful not to be complacent, arguing nothing could be taken for granted with several minor opposition parties working to collectively claim more than 50 percent of the vote.
"Despite being low in the polls, it's still possible for Labour to cobble together a government with the Greens, (Kim) Dotcom and others, because that's how the maths might work," he said.
- Spooking the electorate -
"So everyone who wants National to lead the next government has to get out there on September 20 and party vote National.
"They should have total confidence in doing that," he added in a veiled reference to the controversial book entitled Dirty Politics.
Key has previously dismissed allegations made in the book written by Nicky Hager that one of his former staffers ran a dirty tricks campaign from his office which involved feeding information to right-wing blogger Cameron Slater and accessing a Labour Party database.
He described Hager as a "left-wing conspiracy theorist" who was making unsubstantiated claims about events that took place years ago. The book draws on hacked emails and messages supplied by a publicly unknown source.
Key, 53, has adopted a mostly moderate centre-right agenda since he took office in 2008, preferring to ditch controversial policies such as allowing mining in national parks rather than risk spooking the electorate.
The former banker also won credit for steering New Zealand through the global financial crisis and a devastating earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 that killed 185 people and flattened large areas of the South Island city.
But Key's greatest asset is undoubtedly his personal popularity, with his support as preferred prime minister at about 45 percent in recent polls, a figure which has rarely dipped below 40 percent since he took office in 2008.
A light-hearted opinion poll in the Dominion Post last week underscored Key's everyman appeal, with 61 percent of respondents rating him the leader they would prefer to have a beer with, compared to 27 percent for Labour leader David Cunliffe.
National have centred their re-election strategy around Key's image, promoting the party as "Team Key" and running a presidential-style campaign focussed squarely on his leadership.
His main rival Cunliffe, a former diplomat and business consultant, appears to have failed to connect with voters since becoming Labour leader in September last year.
Cunliffe's party support is around 25-30 percent in the most recent polls, while his personal popularity languishes at about 10 percent.
Yet such is the unpredictability of MMP that Cunliffe could find himself a shock victor if he forms an alliance with the Greens, then gains enough support from other minor parties to cobble together a centre-left coalition.
The Internet-Mana party, backed by Megaupload founder Dotcom, looms as a wildcard, while populist former deputy prime minister Winston Peters' New Zealand First could find itself in the role of kingmaker, potentially leading to weeks of horsetrading and negotiations over who will form the government.