WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand's ruling National party stormed to a third term in government in the country's general election on Saturday with the center-right party securing an outright election night majority on a platform to continue tight economic policies.
Prime Minister John Key's party won 48.1 percent of the vote, translating into 61 of 121 parliamentary seats and improving its performance from the 2011 vote.
"I think people saw the country was on the right direction and they rewarded us," Key told reporters as he headed to a victory rally.
"What you saw was people saying they were going to vote for the future of the country and the issues that mattered, and not be distracted."
National was set to make electoral history under the proportional voting system by being able to govern on its own, but Key said he would look to renew support deals with three minor parties in the previous coalition government.
The 53-year-old former foreign exchange dealer emerged untouched from allegations of dirty political tactics involving government ministers, and claims a government spy agency had planned mass secret domestic surveillance.
"We've never seen a government grow in popularity into a third term. In many respects it's an extraordinary result," said Grant Duncan, associate professor of public policy at Massey University.
He said National had offered nothing much in the election campaign apart from the prospect of tax cuts in the next couple of years, and it looked to be "business as usual" with tight government spending.
The main opposition center-left Labour Party slumped to its lowest share of the vote in more than 80 years on 24.7 percent of the vote, with leader David Cunliffe conceding they had lost to a "formidable political machine".
"We have to reflect very, very carefully on the result," he told dejected supporters.
Key, known for his relaxed style, had unrivalled personal support levels going into the vote, and was seen epitomizing middle New Zealand.
"This is a victory for those who kept the faith ... New Zealanders didn't want people interfering with their election," he said.
Key said National had a great chance of getting a fourth term in 2017, but it would have to earn it over the next three years.
He confirmed he would talk to the small free-market Act Party, centrist United Future, and indigenous Maori Party, who together have four seats, to rejoin the government.
The surprise of the night was the defeat of the Internet-Mana Party's one lawmaker.
The party had been bankrolled by internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who took responsibility for the failure.
"The brand Dotcom was poisoned...and I did not see that before the last couple of weeks," he said.
The strength of Key's victory also removed the possibility that veteran New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, whose party gained 8.8 percent of the vote, would emerge as king maker.
Additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Rosalind Russell