"I think people are aware there's a pretty serious international crisis out there and that Labour can be counted on to protect jobs and vulnerable people."

Recession factor

But the country is in recession and facing the impact of the global downturn, with unemployment levels, once among the lowest in the world, now creeping towards five per cent.

The Nationals led by Key, left, look set to take over from Clark's Labour party [AFP]
John Key, the leader of the National party who is a millionaire former foreign exchange dealer, agreed that the "polls are one thing, election night results can be a very different thing".

Voting in New Zealand is not compulsory and as much as 10 per cent of the electorate could remain undecided until the last minute.

But Key did allow that his party's double-digit lead was "fantastic" and has highlighted his economic credentials as a strength.

Small parties which have pledged to back National - the right wing ACT party and the centrist United Future - also showed enough support in opinion polls to give National a majority in parliament.

Under New Zealand's proportional representation voting system, no single party has ever gained an outright majority of seats, meaning they have had to strike deals with minority parties to govern.