Wellington (AFP) - Both of New Zealand's major political parties moved to open coalition negotiations with maverick MP Winston Peters Sunday after the country's general election stalemate left him in the position of kingmaker.
Prime Minister Bill English was looking for his National Party to stitch up a deal as soon as possible, while Jacinda Ardern's opposition Labour Party was keen to wait until all postal and overseas votes are counted in two weeks before final deal is cut.
English appeared to be in the driving seat to form a government due to tensions among the opposition parties that would need to unite to unseat him.
His National Party performed strongly in Saturday's election to claim 46.0 percent of the vote and 58 seats, three short of the 61 needed to win.
Labour, under charismatic newcomer Jacinda Ardern, polled 35.8 percent to take 45 seats, although that rises to 52 if the seven seats of close ally the Greens are included.
It means both English and Ardern would need the nine seats held by Peters' New Zealand First party to get over the line and reach the majority required to form a government.
While English and Ardern prepared to pitch their case to Peters, the NZF leader went fishing Sunday, saying the main party leaders may make decisions "but they won't have the cards that matter."
Peters made a number of "bottom line" demands during the campaign and said he would next consult his party members and officials "and then we'll tell you what we're prepared to do."
English said steps were under way to arrange talks with Peters but he would not say what was on or off the table.
"We want to get on with the job of forming the government, but we will work with NZ First at the pace they are willing to go, and as Mr Peters has indicated he also wants to move at a pace that respects the public's desire to get the issues dealt with and get a government formed," English said.
"Our position going into those is almost one in two New Zealanders supported National and the voters have given us the task of forming a government with NZ First."
- 'It's up to Winston Peters' -
Special votes, including postal votes and overseas votes, account for about 15 percent of the total and Ardern believed they would give her party a lift
"It's hard to go too far without knowing that remaining 15 per cent," she said.
"At this time, parties are wanting a little extra time to consider their position and to consider the special votes. It's making sure that everyone's vote has been counted before we start forming a government."
Labour campaign director Phil Twyford said Peters, known for his anti-immigration and protectionist policies, had more in common with his centre-left party than National.
"There's much more policy alignment between New Zealand First and Labour. They're committed to a much more hands-on approach to economic management."
During the campaign, Labour dismissed a NZF policy to hold a referendum on the future of the seven seats reserved specifically for the indigenous Maori population.
However, Twyford said Sunday he could not dismiss the possibility of it being part of negotiations.
"I can't say that now and I won't because the coalition discussions are going to start today. I think all those issues are going to be on the table," he told TV3's The Nation.
An added difficulty for Ardern's Labour is that it must bring together two bitter foes in Peters and the Greens if it is to gain office.
The Greens angered Peters by labelling his anti-immigration rhetoric racist earlier this year and he warned there would be "consequences".
Greens leader James Shaw appeared downbeat about the prospect of the notoriously cranky septuagenarian forgetting past differences to join Labour and the Greens.
"Look, it's not likely, right, but if you look at the fact that the three opposition parties together have 61 seats... it is possible. We could form a government," he said.
"As everyone says, it's ultimately up to Winston Peters."