* Popular PM Key replaced by less charismatic deputy, Bill
* Maverick NZ First leader Winston Peters may win kingmaker
* Peters wants curbs on Chinese investment, immigration
By Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON, Dec 14 One big winner from New
Zealand prime minister John Key's surprise resignation is likely
to be maverick politician Winston Peters, a popular
protectionist who rails against foreign investment "lunacy" and
plans to obstruct the government's pro-China stance.
Peters and his New Zealand First party look set to again
play kingmaker as the ruling National Party seeks a fourth term
in government next year.
Without the charismatic Key, who was replaced this week by
his experienced but dull deputy Bill English, National will lose
votes and likely be forced to find extra seats beyond its usual
coalition partners to hold power in New Zealand's German-style
mixed member proportional parliament, political analysts say.
New Zealand First currently holds 12 seats in the 121 seat
chamber and is confident of increasing its vote in an election
expected around September. That will give Peters bargaining
power to push a anti-globalization message similar to those that
have found favour in parts of Southeast Asia, Europe and the
A lawyer of Maori descent with a pedant-like knowledge of
obscure legislative debating rules who has been politically
active since the 1970s, Peters is no Donald Trump.
But his vocal opposition of Chinese migration and investment
makes him an uncomfortable bedfellow for the centre right
National Party, which has embraced the Asian giant and is
negotiating a free trade upgrade with the country's largest
"Other parties either have ignored the causes of public
anxiety or have tried to milk the issue when they were a part of
the problem in the first place," Peters told Reuters in a phone
interview. "We've focused on things that ordinary people are
Peters plans to spend the coming months rallying against
many of the policies that National is spearheading, calling for
a ban on foreign home buyers and restrictions on China's
This could make it harder for the National government to
maintain or deepen its close relationship with China.
Under Key's watch New Zealand became the first developed
country to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and New
Zealand officials helped to usher in other Western countries to
the China-led bank, according to treasury officials. Trade
between the two countries has grown to more than NZ$20 billion
($14.4 billion) a year and Chinese President Xi Jinping this
year described the relationship as "unprecedented" in its depth.
Peters has long held a very different take on China. In
2005, he blamed Asian immigration for "imported criminal
activity". This year he described a Chinese company taking a
majority ownership in a small New Zealand dairy processor as
"lunacy" while dairy giant Fonterra's decision to send cows to
China was "economic treason."
His party has a policy to ban most foreign buyers in the red
hot housing market, whose price growth is among the highest in
the world, a move National has rejected.
To be sure, Wellington's ties to Beijing have developed over
many years and under successive governments, including those
Peters has been a part of.
But with public anguish rising over housing affordability
and New Zealand pushing for a free trade upgrade with China,
Peters' message is gaining more traction.
Under the FTA upgrade, Beijing is pushing for better
investment access into the Pacific nation - something Peters
"There's a dire warning to this country in a resource hungry
world, where so many of our resources are coming under foreign
control," Peters said.
"Frankly the level of access (by China) to the New Zealand
market has been a mess. Nearly all of the impediments have been
stripped away a long time ago."
Representatives from the Chinese embassy in Wellington did
not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Peters served as deputy prime minister as part of a
National-led government in 1996 and foreign minister under a
Labour Party-led government in 2005 and has refused to say which
party he would favour if called on to form a coalition next
But with National expected to win the most votes of any
party and Peters' mistrust of the left-wing Green Party,
observers think a deal with National is likely.
English, the new prime minister, acknowledged the
relationship with Peters had been "challenging at times" but was
not the immediate focus.
"The business of worrying about working with NZ First will
arise after the election."
Don Brash, a former National Party leader who lost the 2005
election after failing to make a deal with Peters saw him in
potentially powerful position come election time.
"If Mr Peters has let's say 17 seats, which is absolutely
possible, then he's in a position to make quite strong demands,"
($1 = 1.3904 New Zealand dollars)
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)